These student journalists are standing up for a free press

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Various campus publications in the Philippines have had to struggle with lack of funds and editorial independence, among others. Despite this, they have managed to stay afloat and even step up their coverage. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Campus journalism is the cradle of press freedom — but student publications across the Philippines struggle with editorial independence, low funds, and a lack of resources. The law is meant to help them, but it has not always worked.

Under the Campus Journalism Act of 1991, or Republic Act 7079, “a student shall not be expelled or suspended solely on the basis of articles he or she has written.” Yet three years after its passage, 10 students from Miriam College's publication, Chi-Rho, were dismissed, expelled, and suspended for writing or approving work that the school deemed erotic. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, which upheld the expulsion.

Editorial board members of AMA Computer College’s Dataline were also expelled in 1997 after publishing a lampoon issue. A Quezon City Regional Trial Court judge upheld their dismissal. The Supreme Court later slammed the decision and charged the judge a ₱5,000 fine — but that was in 2002, five years later.

In 2016, Kabataan Party-List Representative Sarah Elago filed House Bill 3636, seeking stronger protection of student journalists. Senator Leila De Lima has since filed a counterpart measure, Senate Bill 1868, at the upper house. The proposal criticized the 1991 law for not imposing penalties on non-compliant school administrations. It also noted that the Supreme Court allowed expulsion if there was “material disruption of class work ... or substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others.”

“[This] is too broad,” the authors of the bill argued, “that even a simple factual article may fall within its application.”

Despite these challenges, campus journalists have been stepping up their coverage. When President Rodrigo Duterte rose to power, Lady Justice graced the cover of the University of the Philippines’ (U.P.) The Collegian in a biting editorial cartoon reminiscent of Raffy Lerma’s iconic Inquirer cover photo, a drug war pieta. In May, Ateneo de Manila University and Xavier University’s publications The Guidon and The Crusader released joint multimedia coverage of the aftermath of the Marawi Crisis. The Guidon previously banded with two other Ateneo publications, the literary folio Heights and the Filipino language news magazine Matanglawin, for a special issue with cut-outs of articles, poems, and writing from and about martial law — designed to be distributed discreetly, as publications had been under dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ regime.

In a fraught time for the press, here are some other campus publications whose efforts we cannot afford to overlook.

_3 (1).jpg This issue of San Beda Manila's The Bedan Roar includes a commentary on a mandatory drug test in light of the anti-drug campaign; a news brief on students being accepted to an international conference, but having no funding to attend; and an editorial on ‘fake news.’ Photo from THE BEDAN ROAR/ISSUU

The Bedan Roar, San Beda Manila Senior High School

San Beda Manila Senior High School’s (SHS) publication, The Bedan Roar, made headlines when its latest issue, critical of both the government and school administration, never saw distribution. Its cover featured President Duterte, a Bedan alumnus, sitting on an iron throne of guns atop a heap of dead bodies, in reference to thousands of extrajudicial killings under his term.

Its contents included a commentary on a mandatory drug test in light of the anti-drug campaign; a news brief on students being accepted to an international conference, but having no funding to attend; and an editorial on ‘fake news.’ They noted, said former Editor-in-Chief Lars Salamante, that “the same illnesses that are plaguing society also plague the school.”

“I was insistent [on including] relevant national news, issues and other subject matter that directly or indirectly affect the Bedan community... then view them from an angle or the lens of our readers, [who] are students,” said Salamante.

The faculty was not pleased. A member who requested anonymity said the school “did not want the students to question or protest the rule of the current President, [who is] a Bedan.”

Former Associate Editor Cristina Chi said they met with administrators to negotiate changes on the cover, but they could not meet halfway. “All opinion articles should be reduced to one to two sentences per topic, and with no national issues as much as possible,” she recounted of the instructions given to them. “They wanted whole pages with only pictures of events.”

The students said they would not compromise their vision for the paper, or junk their staffers’ hard work. After studying safety nets under the law, they went to press. When the copies arrived, Chi said administrators thought they planned a secret circulation — and they allegedly argued the Campus Journalism Act only applied to college students.

“Before we could even make plans on how to distribute it to the students, they collected all the copies and packaged them in boxes to be shredded,” said Chi.

A member who requested anonymity said the school “did not want the students to question or protest the rule of the current President, [who is] a Bedan.”

The Bedan Roar took to Facebook to explain why the studentry would not be receiving their magazines, and uploaded the full issue online. Chi said the online release was borne from “responsibility and duty,” a sense of accountability to their readers.

The perceived censorship from the school administration went viral. The Bedan Alumni Association released a statement of solidarity for the paper, signed by previous school paper editors — including, most prominently, former senator Rene Saguisag.

San Beda Manila SHS Vice Principal Aurora L. Lincumpao told CNN Philippines Life that the students were just kids, and the school wanted them “to focus [on the] achievements of San Beda.”

Among these was the school’s elevation to university status, which got a two-page spread in the banned issue. “[The magazine did] not focus on these things, [but instead] focused on the national issues,” Lincumpao said in a phone call.

She also maintained the students went to print against the administration’s advice, but did not explain why. She added they were “reactionary.”

“They are just high school students, so they need to be advised,” Lincumpao continued. “We just asked them to temper some of the articles.”

After talk that the paper would be controlled by administrators, students said they were promised autonomy again. For a supposedly clean slate, the incoming Editorial Board has been reshuffled, save for one officer. Applicants will be screened by the paper’s top editor and two moderators.

9 v2.jpg Variations, the school paper of the Philippine High School for the Arts, has a motto that reads: “Makialam. Makiusisa. Makigulo't mambulabog. Higit sa lahat, magpakadalubhasa.” Photo from VARIATIONS/FACEBOOK

Variations, Philippine High School for the Arts

Variations is tasked with covering news, issues, and stories for the student artists and scholars in the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA). Although established under Marcos’ administration in 1977, students of PHSA have been critical of the regime. The school paper motto reads: “Makialam. Makiusisa. Makigulo't mambulabog. Higit sa lahat, magpakadalubhasa.”

In April, students and alumni went up in arms over the addition of former first lady Imelda Marcos’ name to a coveted scholarship. Variations released a statement asking the administration for an explanation.

The publication noted the Makiling Academy and Research Institute for the Arts (MARIA) scholarship had indeed been affixed with Imelda Romualdez Marcos’ initials, but they were dropped in 1990 when Executive Order 420 effectively converted PHSA into a regular government agency, disconnecting the school from the Marcoses.

Variations’ statement would be taken down that same week upon the request of PHSA officials. According to former Editor-in-Chief Maura Yap, their adviser asked them to delete the post after he had been contacted by the administration. He reasoned the contents had not been reviewed, and could have contained something libelous. Yap and then-Associate Editor Bea Rabe did as they were told, but reposted the statement on their personal profiles.

Both students said their adviser had always been hands on, but nonetheless gave them the freedom to report the truth.

“Personally, I think we were told to take our post down because the school doesn’t want to involve itself in trouble. The school is very reliant on getting its budget from the government and having an anti-Marcos sentiment from an organization connected to the school could [result in a] budget cut,” Yap speculated.

Yap mentioned that two years ago, Variations reported on a fire extinguisher that leaked in one of PHSA’s school buses while students were on board. Fortunately, no student got hurt. “We wrote an article about it for the paper but we were told to remove it because it reflected poorly on the school," she shared.

Variations’ statement closed with a demand for the school to explain the Marcos tribute. “As the student publication, it is our responsibility to the student body to take word for what the students think,” it read. “[The] media blackout from our school administration is simply proof that something happened without any of the students’ knowledge or consent.”

As of this writing, PHSA administration has still not issued a public explanation. It also did not respond to CNN Philippines’ request for comment.

However, the school sent a letter to the similarly disquieted PHSA Alumni Association, explaining that Imelda Marcos’ initials were a “typographical error,” and as a result, read out loud by mistake. Students were unconvinced, pointing out that the 2015 student handbook also used Marcos’ name — and it has not been edited since.

_2.jpg Campus journalists from Christ the King College in La Union founded Assortedge. Now, the editorial board consists of members from Davao, Cavite, Cagayan de Oro, Mindoro, and Laguna among other places. Photo from ASSORTEDGE/FACEBOOK

Assortedge, various schools

Assortedge was founded in 2016 by John Paul Punzalan and Kharl James Villadolid, campus journalists from Christ the King College in La Union. They assembled a ragtag editorial board with members from Davao, Cavite, Cagayan de Oro, Mindoro, and Laguna among other places to help monitor the presidential elections. The mix was enriching, allowing for mobility and a wider reach. But it also meant plowing through operations with no office and no profit — all from different locations.

After the election, the online publication expanded its coverage to include science, pop culture, and even religion. Only a handful of founding editors are still with the organization, but the challenges have stayed the same.

“Since we're all students and have no steady income, everything we do is out of pocket, so we're not always able to meet,” incumbent Editor-in-Chief Hazel Gil said. “We do facilitate workshops and participate and partner in events, as well as the occasional kind donor, but we heavily rely on abono.”

“We sometimes feel incredible pressure to keep things running on top of the already confusing life of adolescents,” she added.

_.jpg Its tagline mission “to put the world into context” means reporting with “no colors, but also no neutrality: just bias to the truth,” says Hazel Gil, Editor-in-Chief of Assortedge. Photo from ASSORTEDGE/FACEBOOK

Assortedge also holds editorial and creative exams, growing its membership to around 40 and becoming a home for student journalists across the country. Most members hail from Region IV-A, which Gil says is a powerhouse in the school press conference circuit. Its Facebook page now has 179,000 followers.

The goal was to fight misinformation and propaganda with fact. Its tagline mission “to put the world into context” means reporting with “no colors, but also no neutrality: just bias to the truth,” says Gil, a Business Economics sophomore at U.P. Diliman.

Assortedge produces explanatory graphics compiled in photo albums for different topics, from national issues covering politics and health to student-handy guides like a list of top universities and entrance exam tips.

It has had its share of backlash too. One post, “Debunking Martial Law Myths,” was disputed by trolls and Marcos supporters. Last year, its page was taken down after sharing an alleged ₱300,000 check issued to Presidential Communications Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson.

“We must admit: it hasn't exactly been a cake walk,” Gil said. “We've repeatedly been red-tagged, accused as ‘bayaran’ or ‘dilawan,’ or just called ‘bobo’ or ‘ugok na admin,’ among other things. While they may take hits on our morale, [it’s] only ever momentary, because we know we're doing something that is right in the long run.”

Despite this, the youth-run organization has acknowledged responsibility and accountability by being transparent about its membership. Gil explains the decision to publish members’ names was a way of declaring they were unafraid in the face of media suppression — that “regardless of our age, location, or current educational standing, we stand as one organization that champions truth... in media and real life.”

_7.jpg The 96-year-old Philippine Collegian, or Kulê, drew attention in April after two members were barred from taking editorial exams. Photo from PHILIPPINE COLLEGIAN/ISSUU

Various school papers, University of the Philippines Diliman

Amid protests against inefficient systems in school and the government, students of the University of the Philippines have been slammed for both activism and elitism. Tasked with recording these voices, U.P.’s various student publications deal with challenges both internally and externally.

The 96-year-old Philippine Collegian, or Kulê, drew attention in April after two members — Marvin Ang and Richard Calayeg Cornelio — were barred from taking editorial exams. The Board of Judges (BOJ) ruled that as graduating students, they were not qualified as incoming editors. Both Ang and Cornelio said they intended to pursue second degrees.

The restriction was largely seen as an effort to stifle the campus press. In a joint statement, publications across the U.P. system urged the BOJ to reverse their decision.

The pronouncement of Jayson Edward San Juan, a third year Juris Doctor student, as Kulê’s Editor-in-Chief was met with protest. Critics argued he was in a graduate program, contrary to the undergraduate qualification. But U.P. Chancellor Michael Tan maintained the law school listed its JD program as an undergraduate degree, and U.P. was not bound by Commission on Higher Education rules. Tan added in a memo that students may be using “terms like ‘press freedom’, ‘inclusion’ [and] ‘democratic participation’ in a way that trivializes them.”

But for Ang and other members, the administration was being selective. “[They] have the power to interpret the rules in favor of the students,” Ang said. “For the past few years, napakaraming graduating students ang pinayagang mag-take ng exam. Bakit ngayon, biglang bawal na?”

Beyond organizational politics, student journalists from across U.P. also face trouble in a volatile political environment. Molecular Biology senior Jon Bonifacio was among those detained by police during a picket of NutriAsia workers demanding regularization last July. He was reporting for Scientia, the official publication of the U.P. College of Science.

“As the mass ended, the workers moved to arrange themselves for their peaceful sit-down protest ... Based on what I saw, the security forces surrounding the picketers immediately saw this as an incursion and charged towards them,” Bonifacio recalled. “Within moments, it was complete chaos ... with the security guards violently taking down and destroying the picket line encampment put up by the workers.”

“Before everything happened, all the stories of violent dispersal and illegal arrests were just that, stories ... None of it is ever truly real until you actually see it firsthand.”

By this time, Bonifacio recounted, he was “literally dragged into police custody.” He and 18 other protesters and students were accused of being involved in drugs and bringing guns. “They didn't seem to follow much of the supposed procedure... reading our rights, for example, or making sure our wounds get treated as soon as we got to the station,” he observed.

They were released two days later. Since then, the issue of fair labor has hit closer to home.

“Before everything happened, all the stories of violent dispersal and illegal arrests were just that, stories ... None of it is ever truly real until you actually see it firsthand,” he said.

Bonifacio also knows regularization could haunt him long after he graduates. He added, “Contractualization ... is also a big problem for scientists working here in the country.”

Campus journalists have not been spared online either. The Facebook page of Tinig ng Plaridel, the U.P. College of Mass Communication official student publication, was nearly suspended after a slew of online attacks after it posted photos of a Human Rights Day protest in December last year.

“[Pro-Duterte] trolls kept on reporting our page ... This resulted in us — the Editorial Board as page administrators — being logged out of our personal Facebook accounts because of ‘suspicious activity,’” shared Bei Zamora, former Plaridel Editor-in-Chief. “We really thought that Plaridel was going to lose its [page]... [It] would have been a major blow since it was the only way for us to report the news, as we did not have sufficient funds to distribute in print.”

The Diliman community gave Plaridel high online ratings to avert suspension. For Zamora, their experience was “only a symptom of the overall problem of press freedom in the Philippines.”

_5 (1).jpg The Facebook page of Tinig ng Plaridel, the U.P. College of Mass Communication official student publication, was nearly suspended after a slew of online attacks after it posted photos of a Human Rights Day protest in December last year. Photo from TINIG PLARIDEL/FACEBOOK

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These issues are just a few of the campus press problems we know of. Across the country, students use pen names when critical of school authorities; publication funds take hits for various reasons, from mismanagement to free tuition; and both internal bureaucracy and external conflict — among them militarization in Mindanao — prevent publications from delivering.

After the Securities and Exchanges Commission revoked Rappler’s license in January, some student journalists joined advocates and media professionals in what was dubbed the #BlackFridayForPressFreedom.

In a statement, the College Editors Guild of the Philippines called on their peers “to unite and combat state-perpetuated violence and all forms of repression that target press freedom and the people’s democratic rights.”

On the ground, many students have yet to feel this empowerment, and more protection under the law. In her interview, former The Bedan Roar Associate Editor Cristina Chi said she and her peers were grateful for the support they received when the Bedan Alumni Association wrote in their favor. But they were also exasperated — believing things did not truly change on campus.

She called for the swift passage of a student publication protection act that had teeth.

Nine months before Congress adjourns, House Bill 3636 is still pending at the Committee on Public Information. Similar versions have been filed since the 15th Congress.

“There should be more awareness amongst educators, school principals and lawmakers on why the campus press should be supported and encouraged in every school, not demonized… for ‘being critical.’ More than a law, we should be having nationwide conferences and dialogues regarding campus press freedom,” said Chi. “We want the law now.”