This is Part 2 of a letter to Jose G. Burgos Jr., former publisher-editor of WE Forum and Malaya, the pioneer mosquito press (opposition newspaper) during the years of the dictatorship. Joe passed away in November 2003 at the age of 63. He was honored with the title “Press Freedom Hero of the World” by the International Press Institute along with 49 others on the 50th anniversary of the founding of IPI. You can read the first part here.
And so WE Forum was born on May 1, 1977. The family rejoiced, but I held back the joy, anticipating difficult times ahead.
I remember how like a pregnant mother, you saw to it that the birth of your baby would happen at a time when all were prepared. The team, all 20 years old and below, were given their vitamins — what they needed to know about their rights when accosted, training workshops — what, how, and where to collect information, skills in caring for the newborn — multi-tasking in and outside the newsroom, values-prioritizing their studies and obeying their parent’s wishes. And most of all I remember, how you would now take the lead in bringing the family to church.
I remember how one night, before we retired, I asked if you believed that these young kids would stay when confronted with the difficulties and risks. I remember your response — the daring of the young, pure of heart, and free of encumbrances like a family, possessions, and positions are the best trait of an idealist to make a go at following the impossible dream.
True enough, I remember that everyday, as these reporters walked in and out of the door of our residence-cum-office, the enthusiasm in receiving an assignment could not be hidden by their put-on-serious looks. I also remember that before some of them would leave, they would drop by the kitchen and ask Tors, my children’s Manay, if by chance there was rice and viand on the stove.
As the WE Forum was slowly gaining a following because of its incisive and investigative articles that readers couldn’t find in their regular newspapers, there was a need to move to a new office. The residence was not only becoming too small for the increasing staff, it was also being monitored. Unidentified men were frequently seen loitering around our place.
So, from our residence on Serrano Laktaw Street in Quezon City, we moved to a new office, just a block away, a studio situated behind a vulcanizing shop located along E. Rodriguez Avenue. The young reporters, who always found something funny in most situations, were thrilled that we “hid” behind the vulcanizing shop just like in spy movies. When guests asked for our address and found the shop, unless they were led in, they would not be able to find the office. Truth is, that was the only place we could afford with our budget.
I remember how that was also convenient for me to deposit the coins and cash collected from sales placed in a used plastic basket in a nearby bank.
I remember how Jay then eight years old, would express, loud enough for everyone in the house to hear, “I am tired of counting money!” (Pagod na ako mag bilang ng pera). It was his duty to count the coins paid by the newsboys from newspaper sales.
Counting every piece of coin was important because WE Forum could not get a credit line from the paper suppliers. The practice in the industry then was, supplies would be paid a month after delivery, but in our case, where suppliers feared we could be closed anytime, we had to pay cash upon ordering. The production manager, Joe’s brother, had to bring the cash in a plastic bag and deliver the cash personally.
I remember, from that small room on E. Rodriguez, the office moved to a larger place, a building behind a row of apartments in Roxas District. We occupied the whole floor, but the location was not convenient because it was not along a public transport route.
I remember, the transfers did not deter the growth of the newspaper in terms of circulation, popularity, and staffing. But its income was very limited, solely from sales. No company would dare advertise with WE Forum. That is, except for a very small business located on Rizal Avenue, Manila, that made Philippine flags. Our lone account executive, Rene, was able to convince them to advertise. The ad was placed prominently beside the masthead. And more than what its contract stated, the ad stayed for a long time on the front page, to the delight of the owner.
I remember how as the circulation increased, you would push for the increase in frequency, consulting your editorial board. Concerned citizens, some of whom were prominent personalities in government, from political families and business circles, came to provide information and documents, pictures, tapes, all proof of corruption, rights abuses, and scandals. Judges, social workers, heads of government agencies, ordinary employees, activists, urban poor workers, all kinds of informants came. The information provided would be the seed for investigation, verification, confirmation and finally publication.
I remember, we developed unconventional dealers from the provinces. Readers who were committed to spreading the truth volunteered to be dealers — a doctor from Pampanga, a herbalist from Tarlac, a teacher from Iloilo, a businesswoman from Davao, a bookstore owner from Albay, a pastor from Cagayan de Oro, an activist from Zamboanga, an old street dweller who slept under the seats of the stadium in Rizal park, a chicken breeder from Bacolod. Provincial sales of WE Forum became its life blood.
Word got around that there were times when supplies in the office would be scarce. I remember how our blind friends, one of whom was our favorite masseuse, Aling Crising, (patronized only because she had a family to feed) came one day with 19 pieces of big brown envelopes. The blind people explained that they work making the brown envelopes. Instead of getting a full day’s pay they got some envelopes on discount, and they came to donate these to us. I remember how the office staff was deeply touched when Aling Crising said, “Ambag po namin, sir (Our contribution, sir).”
I remember how while eating at our favorite Chinese restaurant in Cubao, a waiter approached us. I was alarmed when he seemed to be pulling something from his back pocket. I thought he was going to harm you. Before I could do anything foolish, he pulled out a two peso bill and offered it to you, “Sir, konting tulong lang po sa dyaryo (Sir, a small donation for the newspaper),” he said.
Then there was this prim and proper well-dressed Ms. Aguinaldo who would come every payday to donate a small amount for snacks for the staff. Only after she passed away did we discover her real identity, a retired employee who received a small pension and shared her pension with the WE Forum staff. I remember how she would peep into your office, say good morning then leave hurriedly.
There was tension, there were threats, but seeing the generosity made visible by people who believed in the truth far outweighed the fears. And I remember, you were all the more convinced that “WE Forum” had to push the limits because people valued the truth.
Then we moved to a more accessible place along Quezon Avenue. When asked where we moved to, naughty reporters would say, between heaven and hell. Literally, the office was sandwiched between a girlie bar and a funeral parlor.
And I remember clearly, it was here where “WE Forum” was raided by the Philippine Constabulary’s Metropolitan Command, known as the Metrocom, on the orders of President Ferdinand Marcos Sr. I saw the Arrest, Search and Seize Order with my own eyes handed to you by Col. Rolando Abadilla.
I could only look at you from the door of the office. I will never forget the look in your eyes, assuring me that all would be well eventually, as they pushed you into their car. I asked myself then, Will we ever see him again?
Edita Burgos was general manager of “We Forum.”