BETING LAYGO DOLOR: Sunset of a National Artist

Last week, National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose raised a ruckus over social media when he wrote that Maria Ressa did not deserve to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

His arguments against the respected Ressa were weak, to say the least.

At first, I thought he should be forgiven for his lame arguments. He was, after all, already in his mid-90s. This is not to say that he is suffering from dementia or anything like that, but he seemed like an old uncle or grandfather mouthing off nonsense during a family gathering. We all want him to STFU.

He said he was aware that he would be accused of sour graping, seeing as the Nobel is the one big prize he had always aspired for, and which he is no longer likely to win.

He was right. He was accused of sour graping, because that’s exactly what he was doing. Denials notwithstanding, the very senior citizen was lambasting a journalist who all of us in the industry are aware has been a target of the Duterte administration from the start.

Among Jose’s ridiculous claims are that freedom of the press is alive and well in the Philippines, no one’s voice is being silenced, and not a single news organization has been shut down by the current regime.

Hello? Does the name ABS-CBN ring a bell? And the series of lawsuits that the regime has filed against Ressa is proof enough that the press is being muzzled hereabouts. Almost all of the suits have been dismissed, by the way.

Jose also conveniently forgets that there have been numerous broadcast journalists – mostly in the provinces – who have been silenced permanently. They were killed and their killers never apprehended.

There are other ways that the press has been effectively silenced by the Duterte regime, although not as brutally.

President Duterte himself ordered that the book be thrown at the Prieto family, owners of my second favorite local newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Sad to say, the never ending threats against PDI have resulted in the broadsheet’s being a shell of its former self. Most of its ballsy editors have been retired, and the paper now reads like an Inquirer Lite.

The pool of tough columnists have either left, or have adopted softer stances against government corruption.

Incidentally, my favorite local paper is still BusinessWorld, but even this respectable broadsheet is not as potent as before, especially after founders Raul and Letty Locsin passed away some years ago.  But at least blatant falsehoods AKA fake news are not to be found in its pages.

I am doubly saddened because Raul Locsin counted F. Sionil Jose as one of his close friends. The boss even asked me to a review one of the National Artist’s works of fiction, which I did. I was not impressed, to be honest.

This leaves Ressa’s Rappler as the only truly independent news organization in the country. I read its online site every day and while I perceive some weaknesses in its coverage, it remains a dependable source of unbiased news.

Jose’s personal attacks against Ressa are totally uncalled for.

I’ve met Mr. Jose only once, at an awarding ceremony where I received a certificate and nice cash reward for a work of fiction I had written. We sat in the same table, and I found him to be a most pleasant, likeable gentleman.

Later, my daughter would also win an award for her poetry from the same publication, and she too got to meet Mr. Jose. She was pretty giddy as she had long admired the National Artist.

After reading his first piece slamming Ressa, I asked myself: What happened to F. Sionil Jose?

He then followed up his written assault two more times (as of last count), where he again said he knew he would be accused of sour graping.

Me things he doth protest too much.

He should put this issue to rest. He’s said his piece and a good many people disagreed with him.

He is known to be an ardent admirer of Ferdinand but most especially Imelda Marcos. That’s his business. She did, after all, create the National Artist honorarium, didn’t she?

Unfortunately for him, he is in the same camp as Carlo J. Caparas, who Gloria Arroyo also made a national artist. Maybe before he steps down, Rodrigo Duterte will make Mocha Uson a national artist for stripping.

So while his local title has lost its meaning, Jose must be seething at Ressa because a Nobel is a Nobel is a Nobel. Her being the first Filipino to win the most prestigious of all prizes is icing on the cake.

In one of his writings, Jose even said that Ressa’s was a Peace prize, not one for Literature, ergo not as respected. The latter is what he has been salivating for for decades, perhaps because it carries a cash prize of $1 million. This is a ton of coin more than the measly P1 million a year he and Caparas and all the other national artists receive year after year.

In one of his newer writings, Jose said he deserved to be respected. To this, a former mutual friend of ours – the Palanca awardee is still my friend but is no longer his – said respect is earned and not demanded.

One print and broadcast journalist whom I have the highest respect for said another thing. He told the national artist that he had read a lot of his works and also read the writings of Ressa.

“She’s better than you,” he told Jose, adding that the dialogue in his novels were too wordy and unrealistic, or words to that effect. Ouch.

With this column, I will no longer comment on National Artist F. Sionil Jose. I truly feel sorry for him. He should have aged like fine wine, but instead ended up like cheap vinegar. I may even revisit his popular La Solidaridad bookstore when I have the time and the inclination.