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Remembering a Filipino press freedom icon

Jose G. Burgos Jr. devoted his entire journalistic career to an unrelenting pursuit of truth and fairness

Edita Tronqued-Burgos, Manila

Edita Tronqued-Burgos, Manila

Updated: January 05, 2021 06:30 AM GMT
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Remembering a Filipino press freedom icon

Jose G. Burgos Jr. exposed the truth about the Marcos dictatorship. (Photo supplied)

Jose G. Burgos Jr. would have been 80 on Jan. 4. But he departed this world on Nov. 16, 2003, at 62 after a lingering illness.

Today, the Philippines is experiencing a decrease in democratic space caused by oppressive implementation of laws meant to keep peace and order but which are abused by those in power.

People who knew him would always comment with regret that if Joe were alive, he would have fearlessly reported the truth about the rampant and unchecked human rights abuses and would have fought the suppression of press freedom. 

Jose Burgos Jr. was the leading symbol of the "alternative press" or "mosquito press" that exposed the truth about the Marcos dictatorship with his publication WE Forum, which was founded in 1977 at the height of martial law.

He was jailed along with the newspaper’s staff after the printing office was raided on Dec. 7, 1982. Due to international pressure, Joe along with the others was released after a week of solitary confinement. Within a month of his release, and with sedition charges still pending, he started publishing Ang Pahayagang Malaya, a sister publication of WE Forum. Warned that this could incur the ire of the dictator, and he could be jailed again or killed, Joe tested the limits of press freedom. 

Ang Pahayagang Malaya, a weekly national broadsheet, evolved to be a daily newspaper after the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino Jr. on Aug. 21, 1983. Publishing five editions and churning out almost 300,000 copies each day, the record of Malaya stands unbeaten to the knowledge of this author.

The original WE Forum resumed publication two years later when the Supreme Court declared the raid illegal, resolving that evidence secured from an illegal raid is unacceptable as evidence in court. The case is now considered a landmark decision in Philippine jurisprudence. 

At 29, Joe was named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Philippines for his fearless investigations as a reporter of the Times-Mirror-Taliba chain of newspapers owned by Don Joaquin “Chino” Roces. Outstanding among his serialized articles was his reportage of election-related violence in Ilocos Sur, his home province.

Senator Teresa Aquino-Oreta, Ninoy’s sister, believes the 1986 EDSA Revolution would not have happened "without Joe and his publications in the frontline. Nobody could argue the fact that the brave fight for freedom and democracy would have been a much tougher battle without Joe and his ragtag band of journalists."

Giving up a lucrative position as information officer of the Philippine National Oil Company, Burgos founded WE (for the Young Filipino) on May 1, 1977, to meet the need for an independent newspaper at a time when all the mainstream publications were owned by relatives or cronies of the dictator. Later the paper was renamed WE Forum.

In 1986, the Inter Press Service named Joe International Journalist of the Year in recognition of his fight for press freedom under martial law. He received the award at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. At the IPI’s 50th anniversary, Joe was named one of the 50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the Century, the only Filipino and one of the 50 percent of the awardees who were present alive at the ceremonies.

The Senate unanimously adopted Senate Resolution No. 52 on May 10, 2000, "honoring Jose G. Burgos Jr. for his heroic deeds and steadfast struggle as a journalist, in the restoration of democracy to the country."

He devoted his entire journalistic career to an unrelenting pursuit of truth and fairness, qualities so needed in these times. "Independent" was his key criterion in putting out the newspapers. Discerning that after the restoration of press freedom, he could better serve the country by training his sights on one of the poorest sectors in the country, the farming sector, he ventured into science and agriculture journalism.

Burgos wrote on agriculture and the environment and had a weekly radio program which was adjudged the Most Outstanding Agriculture Program in 1996. Deep into rice advocacy, he initiated education programs for students in Metro Manila, introducing innovative field trips to his rice farm.  

But more than being a passionate, principled journalist, a freedom fighter and an environment and science-based agriculture advocate, Joe Burgos was a good father, such that he is the idol of his children and grandchildren. Believing that beautiful memories are more valuable than the legacy of material wealth, he invested in family trips and bonding activities, which were as frequent as his newspaper exposes.

A God-fearing husband and father, by living the way of truth and charity to our neighbors, he taught without having to speak. These memories and lessons are now the foundation upon which his own children and grandchildren are building their lives.  

"Surrender" was a foreign word to Joe. We can learn from Jose Burgos Jr. never to give up, even if we are facing Goliaths in our fight against impunity and perpetrators of human rights violations.

After he was released from jail and he was able to republish WE Forum, his column, the publisher’s notes, carried this opening: “But here we are again, alive and kicking, ready to continue with the struggle for truth, justice and freedom, to contribute our modest share to the efforts of all freedom-loving people to dismantle all the devilish instruments of oppression and suppression under which the nation has long suffered.”

Edita Tronqued-Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. Gunmen believed to be soldiers abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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