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elmer gozun cato
elmer g cato I HAVE been covering Central Luzon for Ang Pahayagang Malaya for more than a year when the news desk told me that Sonny Lopez had been accepted as correspondent for Angeles City. That was sometime in 1984 and Malaya was by then fast emerging as the nation's No. 1 opposition paper. I was a 17-year-old student journalist while Sonny was a 27-year-old columnist for the Pampanga Eagle, a weekly tabloid. I did not know Sonny before that but I found out later he was several years my senior at Sacred Heart Seminary and a graduate of the University of Sto. Tomas.

I got the chance to meet Sonny a few weeks later when he agreed to join me in covering a protest in the neighboring town of Porac, then one of the strongholds of the communist New People's Army in Pampanga. The barrio folk of Pulong Santol were demanding the pullout of the Air Force detachment in their barangay because, according to them, the soldiers were abusive. It was supposed to be a protest no different from those I have previously covered. That was until the obviously intoxicated detachment commander came out, cocked and aimed his M16 and threatened to open fire at the crowd demonstrating outside.

Sonny C Lopez in an Angeles Sun pictorial at the Shanghai Restaurant, Angeles City. 1988
Sonny and I were out there in front, sandwiched between soldiers with fingers on the trigger and placard-holding demonstrators. We were in the line of fire along with human rights lawyers Ed Pamintuan and Arlene Buan and Sister Celine Saplala and Wilson Velasco. We would all have been goners had the two lawyers not defuse the situation by approaching the detachment commander and talking sense into him. The situation could have easily ended in the Pulong Santol Massacre that would actually predate the infamous Escalante Massacre by several months. In that incident in Negros, police and militiamen opened fire on protestors, killing almost 30.

In 1986, at the height of the EDSA Uprising, Sonny and I joined Ed Pamintuan, Alex Cauguiran and Lt. Col. Amado Espino in taking over Radio Station DWGV-FM in Angeles City to urge Kapampangans to rally behind the revolutionary government of Corazon Aquino. Hundreds of Kapampangans heeded our call and barricaded the Bamban Bridge in Mabalacat to prevent loyalist troops from proceeding to Manila. "This is the revolutionary government taking over this radio station," I remember Sonny announcing over the radio. Hours later, we would hear United States Air Force helicopters fly over the Jao Building towards Clark Air Base. On board were ousted President Ferdinand Marcos and members of his family. Together with our colleague Ody Fabian, Sonny and I would later see the C-9 Nightingale carrying the Marcos family fly above us on its way to Guam.

Crow Valley Firing Range coverage. (L-R): Caesar Lacson, the author Elmer Cato, Jerry Lacuarta, Sonny Lopez, and Bert Basa
Aside from chasing countless stories together, Sonny and I also fought many battles together. Sonny was with our group of cause-oriented journalists—Jerry Lacuarta, Jay Sangil, Bong Lacson, Kiko Sison, Titus Toledo and Lyn Lumanlan—who put together the Angeles Sun in 1988. We wanted to make a difference in the local media landscape and make a difference we did with the kind of journalism the Angeles Sun would eventually be known for. We were fearless. For us, there were no sacred cows. Right after our first issue, then Angeles Mayor Antonio Abad Santos sued Sonny, Ody and me for libel. The case was dismissed a few weeks later.

Sonny and I covered not only the cause-oriented movement but also the communist insurgency. Our coverage was so extensive that Sonny, Bong and I would eventually be told that our names were in the list of candidates for liquidation by right-wing death squads. On the day we were supposed to become martyrs for press freedom, Sonny and Bong were separately whisked off to safety by some friends in the intelligence community. Nobody came to lead me to safety. I guess I was just lucky I was not in Angeles when the order was given.

Sonny would later enter politics while death threats forced me to move to Manila for a job at the news desk and later to Jeddah as a reporter and Jakarta as an editor. After I joined the Foreign Service, Sonny, who was then already with the Clark Development Corporation, actively supported our work in the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement. We continued to work together even during the time I was assigned to the Philippine Mission to the United Nations in New York and the Philippine Embassy in Washington, D.C.

A few months ago, I consulted a few trusted friends about my plans to serve at the Philippine Embassy in Baghdad. Sonny was among those I asked if it was a good idea to go to Iraq taking into account the serious security challenges I would face there. He told me to go for it. I knew that was what he was going to tell me. That's why I made sure I asked him.

Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to personally thank him and say goodbye before I left for Iraq a few weeks ago. I plan to do so the next time I am home. I will never get that chance. Angelo "Sonny" Lopez Jr. wrote his final -30- this morning.

I grieve over your passing my dear friend. Farewell. Until we meet again.

The Angeles Sun, circa 1988 (all photos courtesy of the author)

[About the author. Elmer Gozun Cato is a Kapampangan journalist turned diplomat known for his advocacy of responsible and responsive journalism in a media career that spans more than 15 years. He first made a name for himself in 1983 when as a 16-year old college freshman became a cub reporter for the crusading newspaper Ang Pahayagang Malaya during the martial law regime of former President Ferdinand Marcos. At 21, he became one of the youngest newspaper publishers in the Philippines when he founded the Angeles Sun in 1988. His journalist experience included stints as correspondent and desk editor in various local, national, regional, and international news organizations, including the Manila Chronicle, the Philippine Daily Globe, Reuters, and GMA News. In 1991, he became one of the first Kapampangan journalists to go overseas when he became a reporter for the Saudi Gazette in Jeddah. In 1997, he became Executive Editor of the Indonesian Observer in Jakarta. He later published K, the Kapampangan Magazine. In 1998, he joined the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) after placing eighth in the Foreign Service Officers Examination. He served in various capacities most prominent of which were as special assistant to two former Secretaries of Foreign Affairs—Domingo L. Siazon Jr. and Vice President Teofisto T. Guingona Jr.; as spokesman and later officer in charge of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement; and later as head of the Regional Consular Office of the DFA in Clark Field. He has been based in New York since 2003 where he serves as Second Secretary with the Philippine Mission to the United Nations.]

-Posted: 3:00 PM 6/11/15 | More of this author on eK!