Mural taken down amid censorship row in Manila

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 November, 2007, 12:00am

The National Press Club of the Philippines has quietly taken down a 10-metre-long oil painting that was the centrepiece of its 55th anniversary celebrations and was meant to represent press freedom - but quickly transformed into a symbol of media censorship.

The painting, which was controversially retouched by the club to remove what a presidential guard had suggested as 'communist' symbolism, was removed on Friday. Club president Roy Mabasa said it was removed to protect it from left-wing militants who he said had tried to sneak in to repaint it.

'Due to the threat, we deemed it necessary to put [it] in a safe place to protect it ... we love the mural,' he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The 900,000 peso (HK$164,000) painting, by the Neo-Angono Artists Collective, was unveiled by President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the club's Manila office only two weeks ago - but not before the club added facial hair and other disguises to some of the people depicted in the painting, including journalists who have been critical of Mrs Arroyo.

Defending the changes, Mr Mabasa said that since the club owned it, it could even burn the painting if it wanted. But he said other club officers now wanted to sell it - since it would fetch a very good price due to the controversy.

Richard Gappi, president of the Neo-Angono Artists Collective, said the decision to remove the painting from view amounted to 'double censorship'. 'First they mutilated the voice and the opinion of the artist' by adding the last-minute alterations, said Mr Gappi. 'Now they are hiding the body, which is the mural.'

He likened the disappearance of the painting to the disappearance of numerous left-wing militants in the Philippines.

Among the visitors who went to view the altered painting after the controversy erupted last week was Edita Burgos, whose late husband Joe Burgos is viewed as a press icon for standing up to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and whose son Jonas was kidnapped this year and has not been found.

Mrs Burgos was depicted in the original painting, but her appearance was later changed.