When the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos gained control of privately-owned media companies, particularly those critical of his administration, he created a void. It was from this void that the “mosquito press” emerged: small, alternative media outlets with a stinging bite, but nothing that couldn’t be easily swatted — or at least he thought.
The legacy of the mosquito press is worth revisiting given the recent blocking, and consequent unblocking, of Bulatlat, the Philippines alternative news site that was tagged by the National Telecommunications Commission as associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army-National Democratic Front.
“Always, when there’s a vacuum, something comes in to fill up the vacuum,” said Edita Burgos, former general manager of WE Forum and Malaya, as well as wife of the late publisher Jose Burgos Jr., during the Malaya Movement’s recent screening of documentary Portraits of Mosquito Press by their son JL Burgos.
50 years after the 1972 declaration of martial law, with the namesake of the deceased dictator in power, will the mosquito press come buzzing back to life?
Mosquito press: a brief history
In the ‘70s, the elder Marcos controlled mass media through his crony press — newspapers that served as PR mouthpieces extolling the virtues of the so-called new society.
The Burgoses’ WE Forum was among the few that wrote provocative articles and republished pieces from equally brave student papers such as the Philippine Collegian. One such example is a piece entitled “The bombshell of Dr. Imelda Romualdez Marcos,” which reported how four students were arrested for “heckling the President who was present during the conferment of a doctorate of laws degree (honoris causa) upon his wife.” The report went on to narrate that the newly minted doctor — referred to throughout the article as Dr. Imelda Marcos — even made a speech in front of the “unsuspecting UP community.”
But the story that really earned the ire of the dictator was an exposé of Marcos’ fraudulent war medals. Mrs. Burgos recalls in the documentary, “Marcos was holding on to a newspaper and said ‘I will make the publisher eat this.’ He was holding a copy of our newspaper.” Finally, on Dec. 7, 1982, uniformed men raided the WE Forum office, arrested Mr. Burgos and other media workers, and confiscated their equipment.
“Marcos was holding on to a newspaper and said ‘I will make the publisher eat this.’ He was holding a copy of our newspaper.”
Copies of WE Forum, along with other opposition publications, could be found as microfilms in the Rizal Library of the Ateneo de Manila University. These include the Mr. & Ms. Special Edition, an off-shoot of the household name Mr. & Ms. — a glossy variety magazine.
In a biography, it was written that Mr. and Ms. publisher Eugenia Apostol channeled her anger about the apparent lack of coverage of the Ninoy Aquino funeral by the papers during that time into a 40-page supplement to the Sept. 2, 1983 issue of Mr. & Ms., edited by Letty Jimenez Magsanoc:
“The Mr. & Ms. Special Edition…was the most effective in reaching a broad readership because of its bold, almost tabloidish, design (with its heavy use of photographs and cartoons), aggressive reportage, and energetic writing. It was unique in the manner in which it gave free play to the burgeoning culture of popular resistance with its in-your-face reportage (its maiden issue featured a blow-up of Aquino’s bloodied face), cartoons, and feature articles on phenomena like the epidemic of gallows humor and political jokes that came in the wake of the assassination. The public response to the forty-page, black-and-white weekly was phenomenal. Sales rose from two hundred thousand to half-a-million copies, numbers unprecedented in the country. The appearance of the publication was a high moment in the campaign against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines.”
After the older Marcos was toppled, Mr. Burgos sold Malaya (by then, WE Forum had already been closed) and left his journalistic career to become a farmer. Meanwhile, Apostol quietly folded Mr. & Ms. Special Edition.
Independent media in the era of Instagram
50 years post-martial law declaration, the alternative press continues to thrive — albeit not necessarily for the sole purpose of being opposition publications. Or at least not yet.
But today’s alternative press is tackling a different set of problems, as the landscape is a little more complicated than the print-dominated media landscape of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Launched in early 2020, independent media outlet Media Commoner, for example, is leveraging photo-sharing platform Instagram, because its founder JP Campos felt that people were “moving to a very visual media environment.”
“I wanted to make [the content] more specific to address a void in the journalism space,” the 27-year-old founder said in an interview. The void, he said, was the lack of discussion about the intersection of media, communications and technology.
Explainers appear in a vividly illustrated carousel format. This allows its readers to consume smaller amounts of text per slide. Publishing content directly on the platform, instead of on a website, also lets readers access the information without having to click through links.
“We need to figure out creative ways to deliver information. It’s a big risk for media businesses to suddenly shift the way they interact with technology,” Campos said. “For example, if you want to overhaul the strategy of a big newsroom, that means you have to retool your people, retrain them, or hire new people and get rid of those who cannot keep up.”
“Kaya importante yung mga small, independent media organizations. We’re willing to experiment using our own resources, using our own budgets, so that we can set an example for bigger media outlets on how they can use technology their advantage.”
Regardless of era, the alternative press remains a critical component of the media ecosystem.
“Part of being in the media is you secure your bailiwick. You have to make sure that the environment is healthy,” he said. “If it’s not healthy, it will be hard for media organizations to thrive and convince people of their relevance.”