documentary, Film Review, History, Media Studies

SEEING TREASON: Justifying a State of Emergency in a documentary

In February 2006, then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, in her pursuit of a “Strong Republic”, proclaimed a State of Emergency through Presidential Proclamation 1017 to give her government Martial Law powers. Malacanang produced a documentary titled Paglaban sa Kataksilan: 1017 (1017: To Fight Treason). The Philippine Journalism Reports’ (PJR’s) editor asked me to write a review of the government’s documentary.

I blogged this article before but for some reasons, my blog vanished from the cyberspace. Fortunately, the article is still in cyberspace — at the site of the Center for Media and Responsibility, the publisher of PJR.

This piece is important for me because it is historically significant. It was done at a time when the government was serious in its attempts to quell any democratic opposition to its policies. It is a good piece to show Media Studies students what a documentary is and is not. It is also a way of reminding people that the seemingly meek and sick ex-president languishing in a government hospital as a prisoner was actually an iron-willed President (“Strong-person”) of her “Strong Republic” who practically declared Martial Law.

PP1017 REVIEW PJRJournalism Review

REVIEW:  Palace Documentary justifies PP1017
POSTED BY || 30 APRIL 2006

REVIEW: Palace Documentary justifies PP 1017
SEEING TREASON

By Datu Jamal Ashley Abbas

The movie Good Night and Good Luck (2005) showcased what many consider as television journalism’s finest moments when American broadcast journalist Edward Murrow and his team took head-on the Terror known as McCarthyism or the Red Scare that gripped America in the early 1950s. On March 9, 1954, Murrow aired in his TV program See It Now, a documentary showing clips of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s speeches. Murrow and his team used McCarthy’s own words against the senator.

The timing of the movie is very opportune for Filipinos in the grip of the 1017 aftermath. While Americans have sur-rendered some of their freedoms in the name of President Bush’s war on terror through the Patriot Act, the proclamation of a State of Emergency (PP 1017) in the Philippines has shown everyone that the freedoms that Filipinos regained in EDSA 1986 could easily be lost again.

To justify Proclamation 1017, Malacañang produced a video documentary titled, Paglaban sa Kataksilan: 1017.  The producers and crew of this documentary did not use Murrow’s techniques. Instead, they followed the tactics of Senator McCarthy.

McCarthy fanned the anti-communist hysteria and led the witch-hunt that destroyed the lives of many freedom-loving Americans. Whoever got the ire of McCarthy was immediately labeled a Communist. In the 1017 documentary, everyone against the Arroyo government is a leftist-rightist extremist.

The video opens to martial music with the camera tilting from the sky to a long shot of Malacañang.  President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo then explains in the vernacular the rationale behind 1017.

Apparently, the director wan-ted to show that the President is a person of authority. Her words and demeanor give the impres-sion of a “strong president”.

The narrator then declares that the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) ordered the groups fronting for them to launch massive protest rallies on Feb. 24, the 20th anniversary of EDSA 1. Images of ordinary Filipinos rallying at the EDSA Shrine were shown.

To support this assertion, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Generoso Senga states that previous to that date, there were lightning rallies by supporters of former President Joseph Estrada and the late presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr.

Strange bedfellows
The voice-over then states that Rep. Satur Ocampo of Bayan Muna declared a union of forces with Erap supporters, the Hyatt 10, and former President Cory Aquino.

Ocampo’s plan, according to the documentary, was to march with 20,000 people on Feb. 22 to convene at the People Power Monument on Feb. 23 and to march to Mendiola on the 24th.

Do the video-makers believe that the people would cower in fear because the leftist congressman had joined forces with supporters of former Presidents Aquino and Estrada and the so-called Hyatt 10? Are Aquino and Estrada rightists? If they are rightists, what does that make of the generals?

What about the Hyatt 10, a strange mix of government functionaries and politicians? Are they of the Left or of the Right?

Viewers would certainly be led to ask if it is against the law to march in the streets to celebrate the 20th anniversary of EDSA.

Marching in protest during the anniversary of EDSA 1 is well within the rights of citizens as enshrined in the Constitution. What then is so ominous about it?

The armed opposition
The video then segues to the armed opposition. The narrator explains that the NPA attacks against the military had inten-sified. Footage shows soldiers waging war against an unseen enemy.

The narrator then boasts that the NPA terrorists failed and that many of their members have in fact surrendered.

This micro segment begs the question, “So what’s the problem?” If the NPAs were defeated, then bravo for the AFP! So why is there need for 1017?

General Senga says that meanwhile, military components are moving against the govern-ment. Their alleged activities include recruitment of junior officers as well as spreading black propaganda to sow disunity in the AFP.

A newspaper headline announcing the escape of four Magdalo officers flashes on-screen. The narrator says that NPA spokesman Ka Roger Rosal has announced his offer to give sanctuary to the Magdalo officers.

Lt. Gen. Hermogenes Esperon then explains that there was a Memorandum of Agreement between the CPP and the Magdalo or the Katipunan ng mga Anak ng Bayan.

As further proof of the supposed alliance between disgruntled military officers and the CPP, the narrator states that on Feb. 21, Lt. Lawrence San Juan, one of the escapees, was recaptured together with two NPA members. One of them was lawyer Cristopher Belmonte who, according to the video, had been arrested in 1997 together with the Alex Boncayao Brigade leader Nilo de la Cruz.

Raising a Hackle
Viewers are bound to ask: If Belmonte, a supposed top leader of the CPP-NPA, had already been arrested before, then why was he out of jail? Was he freed? Or did he escape? Or is the military simply doing what McCarthy used to do—labeling perceived enemies as “communist”?

The only item in the video that could lead viewers to suspect an alliance between disgruntled military officers and leftists is the presence of lawyers Argee Guevarra and JV Bautista, both of Sanlakas, a leftist group. Senga pointed out that both were constantly beside Col. Querubin during the Fort Bonifacio stand-off.

Of course, the two lawyers could just be offering their legal services or they simply wanted to be on TV.

The video then went on to say that a document among Lt. San Juan’s papers indicated a supposed attempt to overthrow the government through Oplan Hackle.

But the viewers never get to see that document.

Oplan Hackle is allegedly a complex plan to overthrow the government by attacking various government institutions and media facilities. It comes complete with sub-plans carrying cinematic titles like “The Main Event,” “Sister Act 1” and “Sister Act 2.”

According to the documentary, the NPAs have failed in their attacks against the military and many have surrendered. Why then would disgruntled military officers with top-notch skills and high-tech weapons forge ties with an emaciated group whose ideology opposes theirs? It just doesn’t make sense.

What a documentary is
Throughout its history, the term documentary has always referred to facts, clues, proofs, or giving evidence about something. It refers to reality or something that is real. The 1017 documentary is really more like a Power Point presentation than a film documentary. Yet with its varied and numerous assertions, not a single document—whether written or filmed—was shown.

For example, the ringleaders of the military would-be rebels were supposed to be Gen. Danilo Lim and Col. Querubin. According to the video documentary, Gen. Lim was the “over-all ground commander of the mili-tary component” of the alleged coup attempt and was arrested before the scheduled rallies.

Col. Querubin even had a very public tantrum when he protested the removal of his superior, Maj. Gen. Renato Miranda.  But the five-hour or so “stand-off” at Fort Bonifacio certainly did not give the impression that Querubin was a man under arrest.

According to the video, PP 1017 was issued to prevent a coup d’etat. Using PP 1017 as the “enabling law,” police dispersed rallies, arrested citizens, and threatened the media. Yet the alleged leading coup plotters Lim and Querubin were not arrested and formally charged imme-diately. Gen. Esperon recom-mended that Gen. Lim be brought before a court martial almost one month after the issuance of PP 1017.

Again, it doesn’t make sense.

Curiously, while PP 1017 states: “Whereas, the claims of these elements have been recklessly magnified by certain segments of the national media”, the 1017 documentary is quite silent on the role of the mass media in the alleged coup attempt.

Yet one of the first things that the government did after Proclamation 1017 was to harass the media and instruct them to follow government guidelines.

Kataksilan: Fact or fiction?

Stanford University’s Henry Breitrose, in his essay “There Is Nothing More Practical Than a Good Film Theory,” argues that “one of the functions of the documentary is to truthfully represent how things are in the world by ensuring that statements correspond to facts.” He further notes that “the normative assumption is that the film maker tells the truth, and bias or untruth is open to determination by colleagues and critics in the public forum.”

Critical thinking viewers can easily determine the bias and untruth of Malacañang’s video documentary. Murrow’s docu-mentary used McCarthy’s own words against the senator. The 1017 documentary might end up indicting the very people it is supposed to serve.

Datu Jamal Ashley Abbas is a Media and Film Studies scholar, a documentarian and author of an award-winning article for journalism.  He writes a monthly column, “Quantum Cinema,” for Mr. & Ms magazine.

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