By Severino C. Samonte
MANILA, Feb. 18 (PNA) -- The Philippines News Agency marks in appropriate ceremonies its 40th anniversary March 1, with old hands nostalgic as they trace the birth of what eventually became among Third World news agencies.
Only a little over five months earlier, then President Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law throughout this Southeast Asian archipelago, closing down media outlets in a legendary swoop that transformed the media scenario in the country.
Launched on March 1, 1973 as the national government's official news agency, some media analysts say PNA can be aptly called a "martial law baby" that replaced the country's first and only privately-owned and operated news-gathering agency: the Philippine News Service.
Media veterans say PNS was organized in 1950 by the publishers of the then Manila-based major national newspapers -- the Manila Times, the Manila Chronicle, Manila Bulletin, Philippines Herald, Evening News, Bagong Buhay, and Fookien Times.
Its main function then was to supply daily news and photos from the provinces to these newspapers as well as to those in the countryside.
Radio and television stations also used the PNS stories for a fixed monthly fee.
Foreign news agencies, like the New York-based Associated Press and United Press International, London-headquartered Reuters, and Paris-based Agence France-Presse, and a few private entities were also allowed to subscribe.
When President Marcos declared the emergency under Proclamation No. 1081 on Sept. 21, 1972, the then 22-year-old PNS was forced to cease its 24-hour daily operations.
Its major clients -– newspapers, radio and TV stations -– were padlocked and guarded by government troops.
About four months after the imposition of martial law and shortly after Marcos allowed a handful of newspapers and broadcast outfits to reopen, a group of former newspaper editors asked then Dept. of Public Information Secretary Francisco S. Tatad to explore the possibility of opening a government news agency by acquiring the World War II-vintage teletype machines and other equipment of PNS.
At the same time, look for the feasibility of taking over PNS' newsroom at the second floor of the four-level National Press Club Bldg. on Magallanes Drive in Intramuros, Manila.
The persistence of such group of editors to once again set up an even more dynamic wire news agency bore fruit when the PNS was allowed to reopen but under a new name -– Philippines News Agency as the government's official news outfit.
Negotiations for the acquisition of the PNS equipment were done by a group of former newspapermen from Tatad's office at Malacanang, including then Bureau of National and Foreign Information Director Lorenzo J. Cruz.
The amount paid by the government for the old PNS teletype machines, typewriters, mimeographing machines and a photo dark room plus few cameras was used to pay the salaries of the PNS staff in Manila from September to December 1972.
Jose L. Pavia, former executive editor of the defunct Philippines Herald, was appointed as the first general manager of the infant news agency.
He headed its initial 11-member staff, with Renato B. Tiangco, also formerly of the Herald and a foreign news agency wireman, as managing editor, and this writer, a holdover from the PNS, as national news editor.
AS a government agency, PNA was created under a Special Department Order issued by Tatad.
It was placed under the BNFI, its first mother bureau that provided its fund.
When Tatad turned on the switch to launch the PNA in the afternoon of March 1, 1973 in Malacanang, he said: "The Philippines News Agency will be operated in the best tradition of the world's professional news agencies."
During the martial law years, the PNA, with the so-called "Big Four" news agencies -– Reuters, AFP, AP and UPI -– covered the entire archipelago, bringing news around the Philippines to the outside world as much as possible.
For a while, PNA even entered into a news exchange agreement with some of these foreign news agencies.
A year after its birth, PNA inaugurated its first domestic bureau in Cebu City, opening a new era for the media in the country's second largest, most cosmopolitan city.
Seven tabloid-sized newspapers there began to carry current national and foreign news through the PNA wires, a radical departure from their former purely local coverage.
This placed them in a position to compete for circulation in the Visayas and Mindanao with the major national dailies published in Manila.
The year 1974 also saw the opening of similar PNA bureaus in Iloilo, Baguio, Davao, San Fernando, Pampanga; Cagayan de Oro, Bacolod, and Dagupan.
These were followed by Lucena City, Legazpi, Cotabato, Tacloban, Zamboanga, Dumaguete, Iligan, Laoag, Tuguegarao, San Fernando, La Union; Jolo, Sulu; and Los Banos, Laguna.
The peak number of domestic bureaus stood at 23 in 1975, with the opening of additional bureaus in Cabanatuan City, General Santos City and Tagbilaran City.
However, this number of bureaus was reduced drastically as a result of cost-cutting measures in later years.
During its so-called "golden period" -– from 1974 to 1985 -– PNA also served as training ground for aspiring young journalists.
After the February 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, with the opening of some new newspapers, PNA-trained reporters tried their hands at newspapering and in the broadcast field.
Many of today's editors in several national newspapers had once cut their journalistic teeth at the PNA newsroom.
Until 1986, the PNA, through the former Office of Media Affairs headed by Minister Gregorio S. Cendana, had overseas bureaus in San Francisco, California; Sacramento, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Chicago, Toronto (Canada), Sydney (Australia) and Jeddah.
These were closed down after the EDSA Revolution.
During the government reorganization in 1987, the BNFI was abolished and replaced with two bureaus -– the present-day News and Information Bureau and the Bureau of Communications Services.
At present, PNA remains an NIB division under the direct supervision of Assistant Secretary Elizardo de Layola of the Presidential communications Operations Office.
He is assisted by NIB Director III Danilo S, Jamora.