MANILA, Philippines -- In the past, critics who accused President Ferdinand Marcos of restricting freedom of the press invariably were told of the feistiness of the small, thrice-weekly newspaper called We Forum.
Its performance was cited as evidence the printed word was alive and well in the Philippines.
This all changed on the afternoon of Dec. 7 when paramilitary troops and plainclothes intelligence officers raided the newspaper's suburban Manila office, arrested several staff members on subversion charges and padlocked the premises.
Some wire service photographers and reporters, tipped off by the We Forum staff, witnessed part of the raid but had their notes and film confiscated after being manhandled by the officers.
Government prosecutors later charged that 16 people connected with the paper, including two living in the United States, were involved in a 'conspiracy to overthrow the government through black political propaganda, agitation and advocacy of violence.'
The alleged conspirators, led by editor-publisher Jose Burgos Jr., 41, specifically planned to 'discredit, insult and ridicule the president to such an extent that it would inspire his assassination,' the government charged.
Critics of the shutdown said We Forum simply crossed the fine line between criticism of the government and personal attacks on Marcos, a boundary seldom if ever approached by the country's pro-government media.
The final straw was a series written by a U.S.-based Filipino questioning whether Marcos deserved several medals won during World War II.
Marcos is his country's most decorated war hero, with at least 28 medals.
In his series, former army Maj. Bonifacio Gillego said some of the medals were awarded Marcos years after the war ended. He questioned whether the president deserved them.
Marcos, 65, was visibly angered by the series and publicly vowed in late November that he would make Burgos and his colleagues 'eat' the newspaper.
Within three weeks, We Forum was closed and 13 of its staffers and contributors had been arrested.
The action against the 20,000-circulation tabloid brought little protest from the pro-government media.
'Newsmen know that constructive dissent and criticism against the government have never provoked such serious reaction from the government,' wrote Teodoro Valencia, a pro-Marcos columnist for the Philippines Daily Express.
He said We Forum had 'taunted the government into doing something, lest it be accused of being afraid of the paper. Now (We Forum is) in trouble, and nobody can say they did not ask for it.
'Is freedom the right of any man to say or print whatever he pleases?'
Virtually all the nation's newspapers were shut down by Marcos at the beginning of martial law in 1972 and only close friends and relatives were allowed to start up new ones. Television and radio stations also are under the control of close Marcos associates.
'At first, there was some opposition among journalists who tried to get the whole story published, but they ended up losing their jobs if the government didn't like it,' one local newsman said. 'All it takes is a telephone call.'
The adversary role played by the press in the West is not an attribute of journalism in the Philippines, although some low-level wrongdoing is reported.
Instead, journalists are called upon to work as partners in 'nation-building' and to write stories that reflect positively on the country's achievements -- 'developmental journalism,' according to its proponents.
By whatever name, it now is a fact of life in the Philippines, and government officials do not hesitate to condemn the Western media for imposing its standards on a culture it has a hard time understanding.
'To this day, the Western media seek to impose on us and on other Third World peoples the most insidious form of intellectual imperialism,' Information Minister Gregorio Cendana said in a recent swipe at foreign journalists.
'By presuming to interpret for us events not only in the world but here in our own country, Western media are conditioning us to think not for ourselves, but as the imperalist powers want us to think.'
The government appears firm in its desire to proceed with the subversion chargesagainst We Forum. It is doubtful the publication will appear on the streets of Manila again anytime soon.
Shortly after Burgos and his associates were arrested, libel suits totaling at least $4.4 million were filed against the paper by former comrades of Marcos who claimed the Gillegos series 'blackened the names of Filipino soldiers in general.'
Burgos and nine members of the staff were released this week, but placed under house arrest to enable them to prepare for their trial.
'The release order also took into account the spirit of Christmas and New Year Holiday season,' a government statement said.
Marcos released the journalists a day after they complained during their arraignment that they had been mistreated by their military custodians.