A community newspaper’s legacy

Community Opinion & Analysis Aug 11, 2017 at 2:58 pm
By Joe Rivera

By Joe Rivera

Painting, not houses but art works, which I was quite fortunate to exhibit in art shows and galleries here in Toronto, has been my sole preoccupation after deciding to stop writing opinion blogs in 2014. My subsequent retirement from law practice and disengagement from volunteer work among refugees and new immigrants also afforded me plenty of time to indulge in this newfound avocation. Thus, for over three years I kept silent, my voice unheard of, although some unfortunate events in the community I was following almost tempted me to pull my laptop and start writing again. This time, I just could not resist it anymore so I decided to write one more piece, hopefully a final one, as a plea for closure.

Here is this big conundrum that has taken the Filipino community in Toronto in tatters—well, almost. The players are the two most popularly-read community newspapers, a freshly-minted senator in Canada’s parliament—the first one appointed from the Filipino community, and some middling personalities, their egos and reputations bruised by the incendiary and vulgar blather employed by a Johnny-come-lately in the ranks of so-called local journalists.

The brouhaha ensuing from the interplay among these several characters revolved around a libel suit filed by the aforementioned senator against the publisher/editor and one columnist of a community newspaper, a pioneering tabloid whose previous publisher and editor was well loved and respected in the community. There’s no need to regurgitate the facts or allegations made by the protagonists in the case before the court. They have been covered quite extensively by the local papers.

In a contest between a sitting federal politician on one hand, and a small-time publisher/editor, on the other, it appears that the conclusion is almost a forgone one, if not predictable at the very least. Everyone knew it was coming. Naturally, there were civil damages awarded but what was not ordinary or seldom used in libel cases is the attachment of a criminal injunction, an injunctive relief frowned upon in most cases of this kind. The amount of civil damages is usually considered more than adequate to defang the libelous harm inflicted.

But not in this particular case. The publisher/editor was enjoined by the judge to refrain from making the libelous statements she was charged. For violating the injunction, the original libel transmuted into a criminal contempt punishable by jail time. Evidence was presented in court by way of emails which could have anyway spread like wildfire online, beyond the control of the convicted publisher/editor.

Two significant issues seem to arise from the court’s finding of violation of the judge’s injunction. One, it is probably a slippery slope that could have a lasting impact on free speech. One may not question the finding of libel, but to convert the offence into a crime seems a bit stretched. Is this something reasonable and could be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society?

Second, for the publisher/editor to accept her fate in prison, no matter short, as heroic and a matter of principle worth fighting for is beyond the pale, not even a pyrrhic victory for her crusade. There is nothing redeemable in incarceration under those circumstances.

Which brings us next to the seemingly unending chapter to this unpleasant incident in our community. One could only hope the judge’s decision was the final word in this ugly saga. But life goes on for the crusading local journalist/columnist, as if he were immune to the stern rebuke by the court.

This so-called local journalist from elsewhere has now trained his sight against two forces of evil in his mind.

At the time the libel suit was before the court, a group of concerned members in the community launched a boycott campaign against the community paper’s beleaguered publisher/editor, her firebrand columnist, and their business advertisers. We don’t have any knowledge of the impact of this boycott but it certainly earned great consternation from the paper’s publisher/editor that her ever-loyal columnist continues until today to smear and malign those they perceived as the ringleaders behind the boycott campaign.

The so-called columnist is wrong on many fronts in continuing his vilification campaign against the leaders of the boycott, which by itself is an exercise of free speech, the same right that protects the said columnist to write his own opinions. But when the type of language employed by this columnist borders on the periphery of slander, one wonders if he has strayed far too much to promote hate speech instead, something that the right to free expression does not guarantee.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, that sense of tribal justice seems to pervade the conflict between them. In the end, it is the reputation of the community newspaper that will be hurt most, especially the legacy of its former publisher/editor.

Now, this so-called journalist has taken on the publisher of a rival community newspaper, as his latest object of contempt and infantile sneering, labeling the rival publisher and his wife as leftists, communist sympathizers, and former subversives who wanted to replace the government with a godless system.

Let’s pause for a moment and recall the almost twenty years of repression under the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. The so-called journalist was right in pinpointing his rival publisher and his wife as having been incarcerated in military detention centres at the time. Like other detainees during that period of repression, the maligned publisher and wife were imprisoned for their militant objection to the dictatorship. They spent time in prison not for ordinary crimes but as political prisoners, or prisoners of conscience. After their release from prison, charges of subversion were dropped. There was no criminal record on file, no stigma and nothing to be ashamed of.

The so-called local journalist also intentionally or by omission forgot that the former publisher and editor of the community newspaper where he currently works was one of the early detainees of the Marcos dictatorship.

The fact is that many thousands were jailed by the Marcos regime—students, professionals, workers, peasants, women—all of whom this sanctimonious so-called Filipino journalist in Toronto has condemned as leftists. These leftists simply continued the tradition of their forebears, from the time the supporters of the left and those of the right appeared during the French Revolution in 1879. Those in the right supported the king and the left supported the revolution. The supporters of the left have fought a long way in history for equal rights among men and women, for justice and freedom for all. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, after all.

According to political scientists today, the demarcation between left and right has lost its original meaning. Current advocacies are more complex than simple labeling can justify. The political spectrum is no longer just a dichotomy but more of a multi-faceted mix of many dimensions.

The terms left and right may still be used to spin a particular point of view but there’s more to it than a simple description. Those who insist in using the words left and right are usually guilty of emotional prejudice or bias that often displaces arguments about policy, context, or meaningful substance. Our aforementioned so-called local journalist in the community is obviously into this kind of ploy.

I have personally known the former publisher and editor of Balita for many years when he was alive. Like many of those who respected his work as a community newspaperman, I am saddened by the way his legacy is now being tarnished, not by his widow who has remained faithful to the paper’s mission that she is now its current publisher and editor of, but the appalling handiwork of one so-called journalist-intruder from outside the Filipino community in Toronto. Ruben Cusipag might be turning over his grave, but all is not lost. Hopefully, all his close friends and ardent supporters in the past and in the present may someday succeed in persuading his widow to restore Ruben Cusipag’s vision and legacy.

Here’s what I would like to suggest.

Let’s gather together a few leaders in the community to restore civility in our local media. Senator Jun Enverga may like to use the gravitas of his office, to show that he is not in the Canadian senate as a stooge and rubber stamp of the previous government in power. This is one of those opportunities or perhaps challenges that the senator can seize to bring our people together. Forget about holding fiestas and beauty contests for a while and try acting as a real leader of our community. It is also much easier to extend the olive branch to Balita and Tess Cusipag now that the libel case is over. You can settle the enforcement of the civil damages later.

The protagonists in the remaining suits against Tess Cusipag may consider a settlement instead of proceeding in court. If a sincere apology can be negotiated, there will be no need to prolong the litigation.

On Tess Cusipag’s shoulders, however, lies the biggest burden. As Balita’s publisher/editor, she needs to restore her husband’s legacy to the Filipino community. But before she can do this, she must let go of Romy Marquez, who many aver as the doomed messenger of destruction in this unpleasant episode. She must accept the truth that when she allowed Marquez to write for Balita, he took it as a license to sow division and enmity in the community, the way he did in the past in San Diego, where he left a pattern of animosity and meanness in his relationships with some organizations and people in the city.

Some may find this suggestion odd or wishful thinking. But if there is a better idea out there in resolving this community conundrum, speak out and be heard. We can accomplish more as a community if we bury old grudges and begin working anew.