With the growing perception that press freedom in the Philippines is seriously endangered, it is not infrequent that people who knew what it was like to be deprived of one’s rights, and those who suffered from the hands of the dictator while defending their rights, particularly that of freedom of expression, would recall how Jose G. Burgos Jr and his newspapers, “We Forum” and “Malaya,” fought for these freedoms.
Other than his life as a journalist and his advocacy for press freedom, farmers and children’s rights and the environment, little is known about the private life of Joe, as he is fondly called.
On his 16th death anniversary this Nov. 16, allow me to re-introduce Jose G. Burgos Jr.
I was a teacher and he was a reporter. Our salaries provided for the family to live a decent albeit frugal life. Joe ably met basic needs plus a little something for occasions to create memories. These memories, such as out of town camping trips, food excursions in unlikely places, are indeed the “bank” upon which the family draws out its inspirations.
Joe wisely believed that the good life could be lived with the bare minimums. It was easy for him to give up a lucrative position as public affairs manager of the Philippine National Oil Co. to follow his dream to publish an “independent” newspaper amidst the restrictions and perils of martial law.
Joe lived the “impossible dream” in his short 62 years. He was only 38 when he founded the “We Forum” in 1977, and 41 when he started “Ang Pahayagang Malaya” at the height of martial law.
Why he dared to publish, he said: “I am a journalist. It is my duty to report the truth.”
Thus was born the “mosquito press.”
“We Forum” was indeed wee compared to the existing government and crony owned publications. It started with one table, one chair, and one borrowed typewriter.
Yet like a mosquito, though perceived as “insignificantly small,” the paper persistently, consistently, and effectively “bothered” the highest officials and the government-controlled military and other institutions.
The impact of the exposes usually on human rights and on corruption revealed the truth and irritated the dictator and his minions.
As an independent newspaper legally existing within the controlled state, “We Forum” and “Malaya” contributed to the restoration of democracy in the Philippines, a fact that was recognized when Joe was honored by the International Press Institute on its 50th founding anniversary as one of the 50 Press Freedom Heroes of the World.
Later a resolution by both houses of the Philippine Congress recognized the same contribution of Joe and his newspapers to Philippine history.
To date, the record of having the biggest number of copies printed in one day — close to 500,000 by the Burgos publications “We Forum,” “Malaya,” “Masa,” and “Midday Masa” in English and Tagalog in broadsheet and tabloid — remains unbroken.
You would think, Joe breathed and lived “newspaper” to the neglect of his other roles. Amazingly, he was the best father and husband to his family.
Whether it was work or just having fun, the family would be together sharing quality time. He involved the kids, with ages between seven and 12 years old, in every aspect of the publishing work.
The Burgos children, now in their 30s and 50s learned about life by working in the publication offices.
Out of town trips to cover stories or recruit dealers were occasions for family adventures. Singing together in the car during long trips was a main ingredient.
Not even the raid on our houses and offices, the confiscation of our printing press, the padlocking of the office, and Joe’s being incarcerated in solitary confinement dampened his enthusiasm to fight the dictatorship.
Where did he get his drive and courage?
Little is known about Joe’s spiritual life. He appeared to be gruff and loud and carefree if one knew him cursorily. But we who knew him witnessed his relationship with God. His daily reception of the Holy Eucharist was his daily nourishment. He would stop whatever he was doing to pray the Angelus. The rosary was a daily must.
After the restoration of democracy, the family lived in the farm where Joe spent hours every day just in silence with His God.
Joe got his courage from knowing that he was doing God’s will for him. He knew that he could go anytime, be killed or ambushed or spared, only if this was God’s will.
He dared the “kings” and “pharisees,” stood before them to point out the unjust structures that oppressed the small, the poor, the marginalized. It was the measure of a prophet.
As he was with his children, so also was he with the staff of the newspapers. He brought out the best in them.
For “loose change” as they called it, the staff refused to leave “Malaya” even after the other publications were closed down. They willingly worked, for free if necessary, just so the newspapers would come out.
Through all these Joe remained humble.
When he was very sick, seeking answers to our own questions we asked if he saw meaning in all the pain. We were humbled by his answer: “When we pray we do not look for meanings.”
God’s will was his answer to everything.
His last words “Praise to you Lord Jesus,” captures for whom he lived.
He sought and lived the truth, whether it was as a father, a husband, a newspaperman, or just a simple farmer. He was a “Samaritan” who acted on this truth. His memory lives on through his children and those whom he touched. He offered his life, even to the grave, a martyr for the country and for God.
Edita Burgos is a doctor of education and a member of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites. She is the widow of Philippine press freedom hero Joe Burgos. Gunmen believed to be soldiers abducted her son Jonas Burgos in Manila in April 2007. He is still missing.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.