Veteran journalist Margot J. Baterina, press freedom advocate; 81

MANILA, Philippines — Margot J. Baterina, veteran journalist who passionately fought for press freedom throughout her career and firmly embraced the cause of workers’ rights and welfare as an inspiring union leader in a media industry then controlled by relatives and cronies of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, died on Sunday in Quezon City. She was 81.

She died from heart failure, according to her daughter, Shakira “Shari” Villa Symes.

Baterina, who retired as a senior editor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer in 2001, had written articles about Philippine arts and culture since she joined the staff of the Panorama, a weekly magazine of the Manila Bulletin (Bulletin Today during the Marcos regime) in 1972. She became president of the Bulletin Employees Union (BEU) in 1986 and was instrumental in the formation of an industrywide alliance of print and broadcast unions.

Workers’ rights

Along with other officers and front-liners of the BEU, Baterina was forced to resign after leading a strike at the newspaper in 1987 following a deadlock in collective bargaining negotiations. Her coworkers remembered how she had kept her gentle and calm demeanor despite the pressure at the height of the labor-management conflict, calling her “Mama,” “Madir” or “Mother” for her endearing role.

As the strike dragged for about two months and union funds were running out, Baterina sold some of her precious pieces from her collection of paintings by renowned contemporary artists, many of them her friends, to help finance their fight.

She struggled for workers’ rights until the very end, never giving up and abandoning her colleagues. The dispute was finally settled amicably in 1990.

Tired after a long and arduous labor conflict, Margot had said she would have wanted to retire from media work had not the late Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc, then the Inquirer’s editor in chief, persisted in recruiting her to join the newspaper as foreign news editor.

“Margot had a kind and pure heart, always looking out for those who needed help,” said Sheila Coronel, a Panorama colleague and now dean of academic affairs at Columbia University’s School of Journalism.

Baterina, a native of Santo Domingo, Ilocos Sur, graduated from the University of the Philippines Diliman with a bachelor of arts degree in English. She joined the media industry after graduation, but her stint was cut short when Marcos declared martial law and shut down most media outfits.

She taught journalism for a while at Lyceum of the Philippines and St. Theresa’s College for a few months and later resumed her journalism career in 1972 as a staff writer of Panorama, then led by Magsanoc, but under oppressive conditions.

“The restrictions on practicing journalism were awesome,” Baterina wrote in a souvenir program for the 2007 alumni homecoming of Class 1954 of her alma mater, Ilocos Sur High School.

“Military censors sat with us in the newsroom as we wrote our stories. Travel abroad for news gathering meant facing interrogators for hours at the intelligence agency of the government. Many of my colleagues were detained in military camps as ‘political prisoners’ for ‘subversive writings’ or were simply jobless,” she said.

Cats and plants

Aside from her arts and culture pieces, Baterina covered the 1981 papal visit and the trial of foreign and Filipino priests charged with murder by the military.

After quitting the Bulletin, she joined the editing staff of the Inquirer in 1991 and became its foreign news editor until her retirement in 2001.

Aside from her professional pursuits and advocacies, Baterina, though asthmatic, was a “cat person,” who at one point had as many as 30 cats in her house in San Juan City in the ’80s.

“She was fiercely protective of her friends, her daughters and her collection of stray cats. She would go out of her way to show care and compassion,” Coronel said.

At a time when being a “plantita” was not yet in vogue, she was already one, keeping a sprawling garden.

“She once advised me to make and style my own garden and not avail myself of professional landscape services that create what she called ‘a manicured look’ instead of what to her was the ‘more beautiful natural look,’” said Jennifer Santillan-Santiago, who shared with Baterina her editorial days in both the Bulletin and the Inquirer.

Shari said her mother “loved the Philippine arts and culture, and lived her life with integrity, tenacity and principles as a journalist. … Her remaining years were lived with peace, contentment and love.”

Baterina is survived by her daughters, Karisse, a communications designer, and Shari, a stage lighting director; son-in-law Michael; and siblings, Salacnib, Benjamin, Vida, Ceres, Raul, Andy and Martha.

Her remains were cremated on Monday. Masses via Zoom will be held up to Aug. 23, 8:30 p.m. (Manila time). (https:/ MargotBaterina and passcode: MJB)