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Opinion | Special Features | National

NEVER FORGET | 30 years after the WE Forum raid, the Philippine press relishes a lesson on freedom
The online news portal of TV5

MANILA, Philippines – Shortly before noon on December 7, 1982, a team led by Col. Rolando Abadilla, then intelligence chief of the Metrocom, raided the offices of the WE Forum, the trailblazer of the “Mosquito Press” under martial law. The soldiers hauled off voluminous documents, padlocked the printing press and jailed WE Forum publisher-editor Jose G. Burgos Jr., his father Jose Sr., and several columnists and newspaper staffers.

Two sites were actually raided in what is now simply refered to as the “WE Forum raid”. Both sites were in Quezon City: the home and office of Jose Sr. on No. 19, Road 3, Project 6; and the office and printing site that Jose Jr. leased at Units C and D, RMC Building, Quezon Avenue.

It was a raid that drew condemnation all over the world, and exposed further the repressive nature of the Marcos regime. But it was also a seminal moment in the Philippine democracy movement, further emboldening a rising army of human rights defenders, and drawing a line behind which the opposition to Marcos – still under military rule – would not move back but only forward.

With the raid, the dictatorship’s best lawyers and military experts tangled with a phalanx of human-rights lawyers who defended the WE Forum, led by former senator Lorenzo M. Tanada, FLAG lawyer Joker Arroyo, and MABINI lawyers Rene Saguisag and Jejomar Binay.

The last three figured prominently in some of the most colorful courtroom skirmishes in the Quezon City Regional Trial Court.

The Marcos regime had sought to use the seized documents and materials as evidence in a case of subversion against the feisty Burgos Jr., the first above-ground journalist to set up an alternative paper in 1977, five years after the declaration of martial law.

Philippine Law School Dean Antonio Coronel, assisting as counsel in a separate petition to recover the WE Forum’s equipment, argued that keeping the newspaper shuttered while it faced subversion charges was unconstitutional, as it constituted prior restraint. When that argument was rejected, the lawyers went straight to the Supreme Court. 

There, Tañada’s son, Wigberto, and law firm partner Martiniano Vivo anchored the case on five Constitutional grounds, among others: that the search warrant used for the raid was in the nature of a general warrant prohibited by the Constitution.

Lawyers Tanada and Vivo persuaded the high tribunal that the warrant used by the Metrocom was suspicious and defective. For starters, it had been applied for on the very same morning of the raid. The raid itself was conducted less than an hour later. The supposed witnesses used to justify the raid, therefore, could not have been examined by the judge. There was no time, and the alleged grounds to indicate subversion could not have been shown in that short window.

The military had wanted to link Burgos Jr. to violent groups like the Light-a-Fire Movement and the April 6 Movement. As it turned out, however, the raid indicated they were still fishing for evidence where they claimed to have already found it.

Tanada and Vivo asked the SC nullify the two search warrants issued by QC Judge Ernani Cruz Pano, and to return the articles seized in the raid.

They also asked the SC to prevent respondents from using the seized items as evidence in the trial of Criminal Case No. Q-0228272, “People of the Philippines vs. Jose Burgos Jr. et. al.” 

A little over two years after the infamous raid, the Supreme Court, on December 26, 1984, struck down the raid as illegal, for having been based on a defective warrant, which it nullified.

This, said the court, well illustrated the classic “fruit of the poisoned tree” doctrine, ruling that allowing illegally seized evidence to be used was abhorrent and threatening to the constitutional bedrock of due process and rule of law.

Thirty years later, the WE Forum raid – and the eventual triumph of its defenders – is little remembered but profoundly felt. The campaign to free WE Forum provided a template for legal battles in a time and place where even a “legal fight” was in many ways illegal, and for regaining inch-by-inch precious ground upon which democratic forces could establish footing under an authoritarian regime that tolerated little dissent.

(To see the landmark Supreme Court ruling on the WE Forum case, click here.)

Beyond tracking the storied and dignified careers of its players, the case remains a touchstone for human rights advocates, the legal community, the media, and civil society, all of whom found common ground and intersection in the need to fight for a free press.

Most important, the very name of WE Forum, and of its publisher and editor, Jose “Joe” Burgos Jr., continues to remind of how much that freedom remains elusive, fragile, and threatened.

In the most cruel of ironies, Burgos’ son, Jonas, has been missing for five years now – adbucted, it is suspected, by members of the same military apparatus that WE Forum railed against in the 70s and 80s. Jonas’ mother, Joe’s wife, Edita, is now locked in her own standoff with the same. She is opposing the promotion to general and oath-taking as head of the intelligence agency (ISAFP) Col. Eduardo M. Año, one of the officers implicated in the disappearance of Jonas.

Thirty years later, when speaking to journalists, Edita exhorts them to “to seek and live the truth, and share a vision.” The painful, personal context is clear, but the history behind the line is now little remembered. It was the slogan of WE Forum, and it remains a challenge to all.