By Severino Samonte
MANILA — Did you know that in 1970, or nearly three years prior to the birth of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) in 1973, there was already a government proposal to set up its own official news agency?
I found this out while clearing a portion of my room of old newspapers and news clippings on the eve of the celebration of PNA’s 45th anniversary last March 1. Some of the news clippings dated back to 1970, including some coming from the wires of the defunct Philippine News Service (PNS).
PNS was the first privately-owned news agency put up in 1950 by the then eight daily newspapers in the country, namely: Manila Times, Daily Mirror, Manila Chronicle, Philippines Herald, Evening News, Manila Bulletin, Fookien Times, and Bagong Buhay. These newspapers, which were major users of PNS stories along with radio and television stations, were put out of circulation in 1972 when then President Ferdinand E. Marcos declared a nationwide state of martial law.
With the closure of all newspapers and radio-TV stations nationwide, PNS, whose editorial offices were located on the second floor of the National Press Club (NPC) of the Philippines in Intramuros, was forced to stop its 24-hour daily operations for lack of clients.
On March 1, 1973, the then Department of Public Information (DPI) headed by Secretary and later on Senator Francisco S. Tatad reopened PNS but with a new name – Philippine News Agency or PNA. It was placed as a news division under the then newly-created Bureau of National and Foreign Information (BNFI) under the late Director Lorenzo J. Cruz.
A number of the newspaper clippings I retrieved dealt with the pending creation of the proposed government news agency by Congress under House Bill No. 1952 filed by then Assistant Majority Leader and Davao del Sur Rep. Artemio Al. Loyola, himself a former newspaperman.
A May 25, 1970 report said the House of Representatives referred to its committee on government enterprises the administration bill described by Loyola as a “communication vehicle to present the Philippine side in the international community.”
Then Bataan Rep. Pablo Roman, chairman of the committee, said he would call public hearings on the proposed law.
Under the Loyola bill, the proposed government news agency would be a domestic corporation with a life of 50 years and a capitalization of PHP5 million. It would be governed by a five-man board of directors and a general manager.
The board was to be composed of the Malacañang press secretary, the secretary of commerce and industry, secretary of foreign affairs, and two members nominated by the Publishers Association of the Philippines Inc. (PAPI).
In his explanatory note, Loyola allayed fears that PNA would be less free than privately-owned news agencies, stressing that although it would be government-controlled, it would be run in line with accepted traditions and ethics of free press.
The Davao lawmaker explained he was merely seeking “to provide the Filipino people with their very own lamp in guiding their way in the dark and troubled waters of international affairs.”
The Loyola bill, however, was opposed by at least two major newsmen groups – the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) and the National Press Club of the Philippines (NPC).
In a May 21, 1970 PNS story published by the Manila Times, the PPI was quoted as saying that the “proposed agency is an irrational solution to the problems it seeks to solve.” At the same time, the PPI voiced fears that the news agency might be a link in what could be an overall design of the Marcos administration to control mass media, and to lash out at administration critics.
In another PNA report published also by the Manila Times on June 20, 1970, then NPC president Antonio Zumel (RIP) opposed the proposed PNA on five grounds. These were: possible abuse; thought control; duplication; insufficient budget; and difficulty of outlets.
Zumel noted that the “philosophy behind PNA is good, for it seeks to improve Philippine image abroad, but there is no safeguard against the agency being abused and used by the administration as a tool for deception and disseminating propaganda for self-serving purposes.”
The then NPC president suggested that instead of creating PNA, the PNS should be expanded, stressing it was already an existing news-gathering and disseminating agency, privately-owned, had tie-ups with other foreign news agencies, and established its reputation as a credible news agency.
Meanwhile, a May 16, 1970 PNS story said that at least two newsmen’s groups had endorsed the creation of the proposed PNA. These were the National Correspondents Club of the Philippines (NCCP) then headed by Rodolfo Llacar of Laoag City, Ilocos Norte, and the Manila Suburban Press Club led by Mario S. Casayuran, a former PNS senior reporter before he transferred to the Manila Bulletin that year.
The NCCP, composed of newspaper correspondents across the country, said it was about time that the “Philippines should have an independent means for disseminating information about itself abroad, and its own outlet for the official government statements intended for foreign consumption.”
As Congress at that time only held sessions for 100 days (from the fourth Monday of January to May) as provided for in the 1935 Constitution, the Loyola bill was not enacted in 1970. It remained frozen in the House until martial law came on Sept. 21, 1972.
The subsequent abolition of Congress and the closure of PNS paved the way for the government to establish PNA as its official news agency on March 1, 1973. (PNA)