August - September 2009
Till debt do us part?
First Person: August 21, 1983

A million came for Ninoy as reporters battled censors

THE DAY HE DIED. With apparent rush, soldiers of the Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) load the body of opposition leader Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. onto a van at the tarmac of the Manila International Airport on August 21, 1983. This, one of 12 sequence-shot photos, was taken by Times Journal photographer Recto Mercene. Even as a soldier (2nd from right) pointed a gun at him, Mercene said he just let his camera roll. “It was as if they were just loading a log or a mannequin.” Journalists were restricted to the airport Visitor’s Lounge, even as Aquino was led off the plane straight to the tarmac where he was shot dead.

WE DIDN’T even hear the shots. Someone had to tell us about the gunshots outside, and then I saw Doña Aurora Aquino stand up and start praying. Roberto Coloma of Agence France Presse, meanwhile, quickly grabbed the nearest phone and began breaking the news to the world.

A few minutes later, foreign TV correspondent Ken Kashiwahara managed to slip into the airport VIP lounge, which was by then packed with people. As he slumped into a couch, he cried, ”Ninoy was shot! Ninoy was shot!”

An anguished cry leaped from the lips of lawyer Joker Arroyo, followed by sobs from other people inside the room. Doña Aurora nearly fainted and former Senator Lorenzo Tañada, who was holding on to his cane, offered to assist her to a couch in one corner of the room. There she sat, quiet at first, before she buried her face on Senator Tañada’s shoulders, saying, “I just couldn’t believe that my son was killed because we need him.”

To think that when I learned what my assignment was for that day 25 years ago, I had considered it just an ordinary one, having perhaps been used to covering the political opposition that hardly mattered in our paper. Surprisingly, however, our city editor, Rolando Estabillo, told me this was one coverage I shouldn’t miss. True enough, it would later not only lead mediamen like me to question what it was we were doing, it would also change the course of the entire nation.

I was then working for The Times Journal, one of only three national broadsheets at the time. But it was also known as an administration mouthpiece, being owned by President Ferdinand Marcos’s brother-in-law, Benjamin ‘Kokoy’ Romualdez.

Yellow ribbons

My assignment that Sunday, August 21, 1983, was to cover the arrival of opposition leader Benigno ‘Ninoy’ Aquino Jr. After three years in exile in the United States, Ninoy — Marcos’s acknowledged political archrival — was returning home on board a China Airlines flight from Taipei. From our office near Port Area in Manila, I noticed that there were yellow ribbons tied onto the trees along Roxas Boulevard; my driver to hummed “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” all the way to the airport.

Security was tight at the Manila International Airport near Pasay City. All of us who were covering Ninoy’s arrival were asked by Aviation Security Command (Avsecom) officers to proceed to the VIP Lounge, at the far end of the airport’s left-wing side. Only the regular airport newsmen were allowed to enter the arrival area. But our airport reporter Recto Mercene told me later that even there, they had no view of the tarmac.

At the lounge, I found Ninoy’s mother, Doña Aurora, praying the rosary as she sat beside Tañada and Arroyo, who was Ninoy’s legal counsel. Then opposition Assemblyman Salvador ‘Doy’ Laurel was also there. He looked restless, and complained to one of the security guards that we “all looked like prisoners here.”

In a way, we were, because the security officer assigned to the lounge would not let us leave the room. At one point he told us that Ninoy’s plane had already left Taipei, but offered no other details. He also promised we would be allowed to meet the charismatic opposition leader once his plane landed, but until then we had to stay put.

Sprawled on tarmac

That’s where Ken Kashiwahara had found all of us. The husband of Ninoy’s younger sister, Lupita, Kashiwahara had accompanied the 50-year-old former senator on the trip home. He said that shortly after their plane landed at one p.m., several armed men came and escorted Ninoy out of the aircraft. Kashiwahara said he and the rest of the passengers were not allowed to disembark. “A few seconds later,” he told us, “we heard at least two shots followed by another shot.”

Kashiwahara said he peeked through a plane window and saw two men sprawled on the ground. He said he was sure one of them was Ninoy.

But the authorities were not issuing any statements even after an hour had passed. Recto Mercene also told me that he and other airport beat reporters were not allowed to go to the tarmac, while the photographers were threatened that their cameras would be confiscated if they insisted on taking photos.

We decided to follow Doy Laurel, who rushed outside the arrival area, which was now teeming with people. Many of them had gone to the airport after hearing the news about shots being fired, and that Ninoy could be the man who lay dead on the tarmac.

There had also been people who had gone there earlier to welcome Ninoy. Those who lined the road leading to the airport reportedly came from as far as Northern Luzon and Mindanao. Several of them brandished placards and wore pendants and shirts with the slogan “Kay Ninoy pa rin kami (We remain with Ninoy).” They all wore yellow armbands.

For once the loquacious Doy Laurel was at a loss for words. He finally said, “Ninoy has fulfilled his promise to arrive, but something happened inside and that there was shooting.”

He refused to say that Ninoy was killed, and merely appealed to the restive crowd to calm down and pray for Ninoy’s safety. He then directed the people, who had grown in number to about 20,000, to proceed to the Redemptorist Church in Baclaran.

Laurel, Tañada, and former senators Eva Estrada Kalaw and Francisco ‘Soc’ Rodrigo also brought the distraught Doña Aurora to the Baclaran church, where they staged a prayer rally. I had to return to the office because the editors were readying a story conference, and Recto and I had to brief them on what had happened. I noticed that our editors were frantic and angry over what had happened to Ninoy. I then got a call from reporter Cecilio Arillo, who had just arrived at Camp Crame. He, too, was complaining that they could not get confirmation of Ninoy’s assassination from the Constabulary.

On Palace’s cue

Later I saw the helplessness in the faces of our editors as they waited for instructions from the Palace on how to handle the story. The deadline for our provincial edition came and went, but there we were, still waiting for the edited version of our reports.

It was Arillo’s byline that appeared the next day (Aug. 22) in the Journal’s banner story “Aquino shot dead.” The story quoted then Metrocom chief Maj. Gen. Prospero Olivas as saying that Ninoy was shot dead by an “unidentified gunman,” who, in turn, was killed by the Avsecom.

Olivas also said, “Aquino was being escorted to an Avsecom van when the gunman dressed in the blue uniform of an airport maintenance man, slipped through the security cordon and shot him from behind with a cal.357 Smith and Wesson Magnum revolver.”

The government had warned Aquino about possible plots on his life, Olivas said. ”We asked him to defer his trip because of this reported assassination attempt,” he added. “We did not give him travel papers precisely to discourage him at this time.”

My report, “’I can’t believe it,’ says Ninoy’s ma’,” and Recto Mercene’s “Newsmen hear shots as ex-solon debarks” also hit the front page. Yet while our Malacañang reporter Vicente Tanedo’s report “Marcos condemns Aquino killers” was on Page 1 as well, it merited only one column.

Bloodstained suit

Ninoy’s body was finally brought to the Aquino residence at 25 Times St. in Quezon City shortly before 6 a.m., August 22. As suggested by his sister, the film director Lupita Kashiwahara, he lay in state in his bloodstained white leisure suit. Thousands upon thousands filed past his coffin — a simple, open wooden casket draped with a Filipino flag — in eerie silence.

Ninoy’s widow Corazon and their five children had yet to arrive from the United States. Lupita said her brother had intentionally left his family in Newton, Massachusetts, because of the threats to his life. “He was so concerned with his children more than anything else,” she told reporters.

I was pleasantly surprised that on Tuesday — the day Ninoy’s family was scheduled to land in Manila — the Journal’s banner story was my report on the opposition’s call for a non-violent political struggle. The press conference had been held late Monday afternoon, and I thought that since it was coming in late, it would be relegated to a less prominent spot in the paper.

At the presscon, Laurel, speaking as president of the United Nationalist Democratic Organization (Unido), had challenged the government to work for “genuine national reconciliation founded on justice which Aquino had advocated.” The opposition also criticized the lack of security for Ninoy.

By Wednesday (Aug. 24), however, the Journal was back to giving Malacañang stories priority on the front page. That day’s banner story: “Foreign media urged: Be fair.”

President Marcos had appealed to the foreign media to be more fair and objective in reporting on the Aquino assassination. The strongman was quoted as saying, “For the best interests of all concerned, this attitude of objectivity will better inform the people and tone down any partisan passion.”

Above the banner was an “umbrella” on how the Washington Times said in a Monday editorial that jumping to conclusions over the killing of Ninoy Aquino “would be as stupid as the crime itself.”

Surge in protests

Malacañang was reacting to the sudden surge in street protests, with tens of thousands of people paying homage to the slain opposition leader. It even saw it fit to black out the news in the major dailies about the protests and the throngs visiting the dead Ninoy.

It took Ang Pahayagang Malaya, a hard-hitting fortnightly alternative paper, to come out with the headline “Nation mourns.” The lead was, “Benigno S. Aquino Jr. now belongs to the people.” The story went on to detail how thousands of mourners “came from all over the Philippines to claim him as their own, these solemn, grieving, dejected Filipinos, at the Aquino residence…where the body of the martyred former senator lies in state.”

The Journal put the story of the arrival of Ninoy’s family in the inside pages on August 25, or two days after Cory and her children landed in Manila. But it did recount how Cory Aquino refused the VIP service offered to her and the kids. The story noted that like the other passengers, the Aquinos lined up to have their passports checked.

The widow did not utter a word. Only the youngest Aquino daughter Kris, then 12 and the only one in her family dressed in white, spoke up, telling a reporter that her mother could not answer questions because she was tired from the long trip.

Sharing the page with that story was my piece on the transfer of Ninoy’s remains from the family home to the Sto. Domingo Church in Quezon City. I reported that the Aquino family would lead the three-kilometer march that would start at eight a.m. that day.

A million mourners

Close to 800,000 to a million people joined what would later be called the “people’s march,” but that story was downplayed in the mainstream media. So, too, were those on the tens of thousands who lined up the streets when Ninoy’s remains were later brought to his hometown in Concepcion, Tarlac, the mourners shouting, clapping their hands, and waving yellow ribbons as they watched the caravan of some 300 cars.

Instead, most of the crony papers like the Journal focused on the five-man commission of jurists that Marcos had formed to investigate the assassination, and the president’s offer of a P500,000 reward for the arrest of the perpetrators of the crime.

Subsequent main stories included those on the alleged plans of subversives to attack military and police installations, as well as on the report of Maj. Gen. Olivas — which no less than Marcos announced — confirming the identity of the alleged assailant, Rolando Galman y Dawang, 33, a native of Zaragoza, Nueva Ecija, but who later transferred residence to San Miguel, Bulacan.

The president said that he was prompted to make the announcement himself “because of speculations in media and other sectors of the country about Aquino’s killer.”

Crony, ‘mosquito’ press

Marcos was apparently irritated that while his political operators had effectively gagged the mainstream media on the protests, the so-called “mosquito press” and the independent radio commentators were having a field day reporting the public perception that the strongman had a hand in the killing, if not being the “mastermind” himself.

It was not that we in the mainstream media were sitting on our hands. Just like other enterprising journalists who covered the wake, for instance, we got the reactions of the political opposition and prepared feature articles on how people from all walks of life were paying tribute to the slain opposition leader. But those stories never saw print.

The people saw through the stories in the crony press. They knew the reports about planned attacks by subversives were part of the Palace’s desperate efforts to sow fear, to dissuade angry mourners from attending spontaneous protest actions that were organized initially by leftist groups, but were attracting even members of the elite.

By then the “parachutists” — the foreign journalists based in Hong Kong and as far as the United States and Europe — had already descended on Manila, covering the spontaneous demonstrations. They reported to the rest of the world that the public outcry was no longer just justice for Ninoy Aquino, but also for the resignation of President Marcos and the restoration of democracy. For us in the local press, it hurt that people were now relying on the foreign media for news about our own country.

We also became targets of the public’s outrage. As my team and I prepared to return to Manila after covering the convoy to Tarlac, a group of young men blocked our service vehicle. The men began hitting our Land Cruiser, demanding that we report the “real news,” that we all get out of the vehicle. I told the driver and photographer Johnny Villena to just stay inside, while I did the “negotiating.” Luckily, the youths allowed us to leave after I asked them to give us as chance to do our work as newsmen. But as we drove away, we could hear them shout, “Sa totoo lang (Be on the side of truth)!”

If only we could. On the eve of Ninoy’s burial, we confronted the desk about the local press being seen as villains and pawns of the powers-that-be. We wanted to believe the desk was sympathetic to our plight, but we knew our paper was getting instructions from the Palace and that the Presidential News Desk was screening all our articles and deciding which could come out the next day.

History turns a page

When we heard that the funeral procession would be a protest march from the church to the Manila Memorial Park, we from the local press agreed to cover the event as a group, in part because we knew we had become unpopular with the people and may well be lynched by a furious mob. But no harm came upon us and we were proud to have been part of the millions upon millions of rain-drenched Filipinos who walked the entire 26-kilometer route to pay respect to Ninoy Aquino.

Malaya publisher-editor Jose Burgos estimated that more than seven million people escorted Ninoy, whose coffin was placed on an elevated platform on a 10-wheel truck bedecked with yellow chrysanthemums and sampaguitas, to his final resting place. The day after the funeral, Malaya carried a piece by Burgos in which he observed, “Unity, yes, the stricken sea of humanity which paid homage to Aquino was obviously capable of demonstrating but yesterday, it was a sense of unity that could no longer be suppressed but rather had to be poured out defiantly, albeit peacefully.”

Malaya columnist Antonio Ma. Nieva also wrote, “I know, as surely as I believe in fate, that history turned a page that day in a way that inexorably altered the lives of 42 million Filipinos. The day is huge and vast, and awesome in a very real sense, and I try to etch it in mind: The vast throng jammed, in some areas 50 abreast, along a 10-kilometer stretch at the heart of Manila, the sober faces, the unspoken grief.”

My paper mentioned the funeral as well, but only briefly. It was in the lead paragraph of a Page 1 story that was spread across three columns. The piece, with the headline “Lightning kills 1, injures 9 at Luneta,” began: “An overseas job applicant was killed and nine others were injured yesterday when a lightning bolt struck an acacia tree where people were perched to get a better view of the funeral cortege of former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr.” It was accompanied by a photo — not of the funeral march, but of the victims of the freak accident.

It was a “scoop” by the Times Journal and its sister tabloid The People’s Journal. Nobody else bothered to report the incident.

The piece was a tragedy in itself. And after 25 years, all I can tell people is that I did not write it.

Joel C. Paredes comes from a family of journalists and had worked with various newspapers in the Philippines and abroad. He had also served as president of the Brotherhood of Media Unions in the Philippines and co-founder of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.