The ABS building in Dewey Boulevard (now Roxas Boulevard), Pasay City, the original headquarters of Alto Broadcasting System. Photo from the book Benpres: Stories Around a Landmark
Culture Spotlight

Bomb threats & dinners at the Palace: Geny Lopez and the last hours before Martial Law

In the early 70s, the impressive influence of Lopez’s media company only kept growing, and so did Marcos’s fury against Lopez, his family and his businesses.
Raul Rodrigo | Feb 25 2020

By September 1972, Geny could look at his network with a deep satisfaction. He said: “[in 1972] we had 21 radio stations. And we were number one. You could put all the gross sales of the other stations together and they were not even one-half of the total gross earnings of ABS-CBN. We were by far the largest network, and we were the most dominant force in broadcasting.”

Because the long hard climb to the top demanded the very best from him and his crew, Geny felt a deeper attachment to his network than to any other company he ever ran. George Gaddi said: “Geny loved ABS-CBN with all his soul. One night in the early 1970s, he once said to me: ‘I can lose everything, but not ABS-CBN.’”

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But because it was growing ever more powerful and influential with the general public, ABS-CBN was also becoming a force to be feared by the powers that be. Those same powers could not rest until the network had been placed firmly under their control. The threat to ABS-CBN came about because the national political situation in general and the political stands of the Lopez family in particular had combined to imperil the network.

The ABS-CBN news crew of the late 1960s at work, covering a press conference, and then developing and editing film footage in time for the 6 PM news.

In both cases, the driving threat was Ferdinand Marcos and his ambition to remain in power way beyond the constitutionally mandated limit of two terms. By mid-1972, Marcos had engineered the creation of a majority in the ongoing Constitutional Convention willing to accept a shift to the parliamentary system, which would allow him to bypass the legal ban on his continuing in office after 1973.

But a Charter change was not enough for Marcos to rule indefinitely. By 1970, his approval rating had sunk to 20%. In 1971, surveys showed that only 8.8% of the populace were in favor of his remaining president after 1973. Thus, he had to suppress all opposition to remain in MalacaƱang. Just as Orly Mercado predicted before he went into hiding in August 1971, Marcos's suspension of the writ of habeas corpus foreshadowed his impending declaration of martial law.

If martial law was declared, the regime would crack down on all media, particularly those critical of Marcos. On top of Marcos's hit list were the Manila Times, the Philippines Free Press, and the Lopez media empire, including the Chronicle and ABS-CBN. In particular, “the Philippines’ largest network” was so strategic a target that no prospective Philippine dictator could afford to leave it alone.

The Radyo Patrol Crew of 1971. Front tow: Ernie Baron, Orlando "Orly" Mercado, Ricardo "Ka Kandong" de la Rosa, John "Johnny Midnight" Joseph, Manolo Favis, Alfonso Mendez. Second Row: Jose "Joe" Taruc Jr., Reynaldo "Rey" Langit, Mario Garcia, Diosdado "Jun" Ricafrente Jr., Cirspin "Cris" Daluz. Thir row: Jose "Joey" Collantes, Peristylo "Perry" Alcudia, Mario "Mar" Crisostomo, Ismale "Maeng" Reyes.

On top of Marcos's hit list were the Manila Times, the Philippines Free Press, and the Lopez media empire, including the Chronicle and ABS-CBN.

Marcos's misrule had made the formerly close relationship between the Marcoses and Lopezes heated and acrimonious. Geny said: "During those years, I used to join my father at lunch many times during the week. And usually, that was when my uncle and my father would meet. They would discuss what was going on. You could see that they were not happy with the way things were going. Well, that is how I got an inkling of how things were not going that well. [Marcos and his cronies] were trying to bleed the country on a scale that was so massive. Their cronies were all getting part of the loot. But it was on such a large scale—it made the other instances of graft look petty. It was really tremendous—the way they raided the public property and the treasury. Marcos got behest loans from the DBP, the PNB. In the end the people again who had to pay for it.”

Geny added: "The Chronicle started hitting Marcos, and there were several meetings between Mr. Marcos, my father and the entire editorial staff of the Chronicle. Then he had them for dinner a couple of times at the Palace. But he was told that some of the things he was doing were just unacceptable. Of course, he would deny it. 'Do you have proof?' Well, from then on, the relationship [between him and my father] became not only strained but sour, and finally it broke. Once we started going against him, these accusations came out, that we were 'oligarchs.' The wounds were too deep already and the damage was irreparable."

ABS-CBN's special "Man on the Moon" coverage, July 11-12, 1969, anchored by Bong Lapira.

The Lopez feud with Marcos broke out in January 1971, when the Chronicle denounced Marcos for corruption, cronyism and favoring the military. In response, on January 13, Marcos on a live radio-TV broadcast accused the Lopezes of "fomenting unrest" and supporting demonstrations and a jeepney strike. He said the Lopezes were out to "thwart his development plan" and unveiled a litany of charges against the Lopezes, including tax evasion. In turn, Vice-President Fernando Lopez resigned as secretary of agriculture and Geny issued a point-by-point rebuttal of the Marcos charges.

Marcos fired back on January 25, 1971, during his State of the Nation Address; he vowed to "dismantle oligarchies"—by which he meant the Lopez empire. Government agencies such as the Public Service Commission, the Solicitor General, the Bureau of Customs and the BIR. began to put pressure on various companies in the Lopez group.

He said the Lopezes were out to "thwart his development plan" and unveiled a litany of charges against the Lopezes, including tax evasion.

On January 27, 1971, the tension went up another notch. At 4 p.m., unidentified persons hurled a grenade at the base of the tower of the ABSCBN Broadcast Center. Fortunately, it did not go off. When the bomb squad checked, it turned out to be a dud. ABS-CBN put nets on the tower to prevent it from happening again. Jake Lopez tightened security measures at the Broadcast Center, and bought some shotguns and batons. Security became so tight at that point that once a newyoung guard refused to let Geny into his own compound. Geny wouldn't let Ben Pambuan punish the guard: "That's good; he's doing his job." For a while, some network talents such as Nida Blanca didn't park their cars inside the compound for fear of another grenade throwing.

Presy Lopez with son Rogi and then First Lady Imelda Marcos. 

Geny and Jake began to worry about a government takeover of ABS-CBN. Jake recalled: "We were already expecting martial law. The situation was so unstable from 1970 to 1972. There were bombings left and right. That was Marcos's tactic to destabilize society, to make the people welcome martial law. At that time, Plaza Miranda was bombed, and so many people were killed. So the atmosphere at that time was really tense. We knew that we were a target."

Marcos claimed that a combination of communists and rightists were plotting to take over the state. He warned that, if he deemed it necessary, he would declare a state of emergency. Between March and September 1972, 20 bombs went off in Metro Manila. The bombs injured very few and killed no one, but they provoked suspicions that the military and Marcos were staging the bombings to create the conditions for martial law.

Thus Geny Lopez and ABS-CBN spent 1971 and 1972 in a state of tense anticipation. By September 1972, the newsroom heard rumors that the countdown to martial law had begun. A group called the "Rolex 12"—among them, Juan Ponce Enrile, Gen. Fidel Ramos, Eduardo Cojuangco, Gen. Romeo Espino, Maj. Fabian Ver—had already ironed out the details and were waiting for the moment to strike. ABS-CBN News scored a scoop on September 13, 1972, when on Max Soliven's TV show "Impact," on ABS-CBN Channel 4, Ninoy Aquino revealed the impending Marcos plan to declare martial law through "Oplan Sagittarius." But when Jake Lopez asked the PC commanding general, Fidel Ramos, point-blank if martial law was in the offing, the general swore it was not.

Geny at home with his wife and kids.

Many people such as Ninoy Aquino were confident that a power grab by Marcos would not succeed. On September 19, Geny was having a drink with Freddie Garcia on the third floor of ABS-CBN. Freddie brought up rumors about an impending declaration of martial law. Geny said: "No, that won't happen. The people will fight it."

For the men and women of ABS-CBN, September 22, a Friday, was a day like any other. Top executives like Fil Delfino, Millie Logarta, Jun Jison, Nitoy Escano, Cady Carandang and the others all came to work. That night, some of them—Tits Tariada was one—went out drinking. They liked to do so every Friday at the Now Restaurant, the employees' cooperative in front of ABS-CBN that served as the de facto "clubhouse" for the network. Other ABS-CBN executives, such as Romy Carballo, Lito Balquiedra, Rolly Cruz and Romy Jalosjos, left last Friday for an AIM-led management training seminar at the Antipolo Hotel. A few others, such as Nitoy, Jess de Leon and others, were set on getting up early Saturday morning to travel to Santa Cruz, Laguna for some target practice. Rino Basilio was in Bacolod preparing for the launch of “Bridges on the Air.”

On this, the last day of ABS-CBN, the regular Friday night TV schedule ran like clockwork: "Wala Kang Paki" at 7 P.M. and so on. In the newsroom that night, the only sign of trouble was a report that Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile had survived unscathed an ambush in Wack-Wack. But the news came so late that it made it to “The World Tonight" only as a late-breaking bulletin, with no supporting footage. Many people in and outside ABS-CBN were not even aware of the news. Many of those who were aware of it thought it was nothing particularly alarming, just one of those incidents in a season of violence running for two years now. Years later, it turned out that Enrile had staged the whole thing to give Marcos the pretext he needed for martial law.

A leftist youth group stages a demonstration in the early 1970s.

As the ABS-CBN evening TV schedule came to a close that night, the overnight tapings, editing and other production work went into full gear. At the stroke of midnight, talents like Tony Santos, Vilma Santos and Edgar Mortiz were taping an episode. Director Maning Rivera (formerly of "Oras ng Ligaya," "TatIong Mangongopya") was directing another show in a nearby studio. Eddie Rodriguez and Merle Fernandez were taping an episode of the drama series “Dulambuhay.” Some of the men of "Radyo Patrol," such as Cris Daluz and Johnny Midnight, were calling it a day.

September 22, 1972, was in every respect, business as usual for ABS-CBN.

Outside the compound, the men and women of ABS-CBN had no inkling. On September 22, Geny and Jake were out of town. They had taken their families on the Lopez family yacht, the Miss Iloilo, to the Matabungkay Beach Resort in Batangas for a vacation. Geny also brought along Alex Lacson and a few friends. Geny and Jake managed to bring their kids along because that morning, classes in elementary and high-school levels in Metro Manila had been suspended because of a series of bomb threats. Geny, Jake and Alex spent a merry night with their families, relaxing in a rare moment of peace by the sea.

Don Eugenio Lopez was in San Francisco, at the tail-end of his yearly vacation. He had been abroad since May 1972 and was set to return to Manila on September 24. Geny’s eldest son, Eugenio III, known as Gabby, then 20, was studying in the US. The world of ABS-CBN was about to vanish. 

 

Excerpts from  "Kapitan: Geny Lopez and the Making of ABS-CBN"