Building a nation a page at a time

Published May 6, 2021, 2:18 PM

by Rom Mallick

A historical perspective

In the history of any nation, the role of the so-called fourth estate has always been vital. Information, after all, is crucial in the formation of a collective consciousness for people to identify to what is largely a social construct but is so much more. National-building, at the end of the day (although it is never achieved in just a literal day), is all about having an identity that surpasses the personal and encompasses the popular.

In the Philippines, prior to the 1900s, which saw the beginnings of dailies including what would be the Manila Bulletin, there were a couple of newspapers worth mentioning that contributed to this building of a sense of nationhood—in a very direct way, in some cases.


A copy of Spanish newspaper Diario de Manila

Foremost among these is Diario de Manila, a Spanish language daily broadsheet founded in October 1848. To a great extent, it served as a counter-current to the existing newspapers of its time, the Del Superior Govierno (1811) and La Esperanza (1846), both of which catered solely to the Spanish elite, with the former having the governor-general himself as its editor.

Diario de Manila became popular in history, and controversial among Spanish authorities because its presses supposedly catered to printing revolutionary material. In particular, the newspaper’s installations were used to print Kalayaan, the official publication of the Katipunan edited by Emilio Jacinto. Diario de Manila was then shut down in 1898, after Kalayaan enjoyed a four-year run.

Any discussion of early publications that contributed to building a sense of identity and nationality would be remiss if it doesn’t include the propaganda paper of the Filipino ilustrados. In 1888, Filipino liberals studying abroad formed an organization dubbed as La Solidaridad. A little over a year after the society’s founding, members began publishing a newspaper of the same name. The rest, as they say, is history. La Solidaridad became the official voice of the enlightened Filipino, pushing for reform and freedom in Spanish colonial Philippines with the likes of Graciano Lopez Jaena and Marcelo del Pilar serving as editors, and Jose Rizal, Antonio Luna, and Mariano Ponce as some of its more prominent writers.

Expatriated members of the propaganda movement Ilustrados

Other newspapers also contributed to building this sense of nationhood during the short-lived era of the First Republic. In 1898, three titles were born under this budding Philippine nation under Emilio Aguinaldo: There was La Independencia, which became the most widely circulated newspaper of the revolution against Spain, as well as publications like La Libertad and El Heraldo de Iloilo.

Interestingly, La Libertad, which was headed by Clemente J. Zulueta, became an unwitting victim of the attempts of the Aguinaldo government to tone down nationalistic ideals for fear of rocking the boat too much and damaging the quite fragile Philippine republic. In July 1898, the President issued a proclamation that prohibited the publication of newspapers without the explicit approval of the government. La Libertad was forced to close, with many of its writers moving to other publications, including the government daily Heraldo Filipino.

Originally published as La Patria and intended to reflect the growing nationalism among Filipinos, La Independencia did not have the same troubles. It was founded by Antonio Luna and his brother Joaquin, after obtaining a license from Aguinaldo’s government for it. This newspaper included among its roster of writers Cecilio Apostol, Epifanio de los Santos (yes, the EDSA guy), and Zulueta, among others, with Felipe Calderon serving as proofreader. Calderon would eventually be known as the “Father of the Malolos Constitution.”

Meanwhile, El Heraldo de Iloilo, one of the first provincial titles published during the First Republic, is known for its self-declared title of being the “champion of the interests that directly affect agriculture, industry, commerce, and other avenues of wealth in the country.” While not being an explicitly nationalist title, it deserves to be recognized as Iloilo City’s first published daily, fighting for interests that were also vital in building a nation.

Nationalism, although it often starts as one, goes beyond just a feeling, a sense of pride in being part of a group of people with a shared history and heritage, and newspapers are among those that largely helped in shaping this. There is a rich history of print dailies and broadsheets that have directly contributed to building the concept of a Filipino nation. To this day, they continue to shape this idea into reality, one page, printed or digital, at a time.