MANILA, OCT. 12 -- An angry President Corazon Aquino, who has been fighting a public perception of weakness and indecision, today filed an unprecedented libel suit against a widely read newspaper columnist who wrote that Aquino "hid under her bed" during an aborted Aug. 28 coup attempt.
In a separate development, police fired shots to disperse strikers today as workers began a general strike for higher pay today, Reuter reported. Several thousand chanting, banner-waving demonstrators marched in separate groups in different parts of the capital. Police reported 25 arrests, but the strike appeared to be largely ignored by Manila's 8 million residents.
Aquino, in a weekly radio broadcast, said she would declare martial law if it were "absolutely necessary" and "for the greater good of the country."
Before filing the suit, Aquino took a reporter to her bedroom and showed how it would be physically impossible for her to hide under the bed, which sits on a platform.
The columnist, Luis Beltran of the Philippine Star, wrote in this morning's edition: "The president hid under her bed while the firing was going on -- perhaps the first commander-in-chief of the armed forces to have done so."
Later today, the paper's afternoon edition carried an apology from Beltran. "I wasn't making fun at (sic) her -- only expressing concern at the gravity of the situation, which had stopped being funny."
Beltran said he was using the expression "hid under the bed" in a figurative, not a literal, sense. He said he received his information from a published remark of Aquino's youngest daughter Kris, who said the family was frightened during the shooting outside the presidential palace and knelt down to pray the rosary together.
"If I have hurt her feelings, I hereby apologize and take back what I have said," Beltran's statement read. "I don't think anyone can question how brave and courageous President Aquino is."
At the city courthouse, Aquino told reporters, "I have always been a woman of courage. I don't want the soldiers of the republic to ever doubt for an instant that their commander-in-chief is a woman of courage that they look upon and respect."
Beltran, who also hosts two weekly talk shows, has been in trouble with the palace before. Last year he lost his job as editor and columnist for the Philippine Inquirer after reporting incorrectly in his column that Joker Arroyo, Aquino's former executive secretary, was the source who leaked a government document to the communists. When, in his capacity as editor, Beltran refused to print letters from Arroyo over the matter, the paper's owners fired him. Beltran claims he was a victim of presidential pressure.
The presidential palace has shown increasing frustration with the local and foreign media. Wide media access has been given to rebel military leaders who are trying to overthrow the government. Last week, Aquino's press spokesman, Teodoro Benigno, announced that the government had ordered the closing of three radio stations that were broadcasting antigovernment propaganda.
Since firing Arroyo last month, Aquino has become more open to the press, granting interviews for the first time since last fall.
Yesterday, in an interview on the NBC program "Sunday Morning Today Show," Aquino told Maria Shriver that she was bothered by the criticisms. She also said people's expectations of her were too high following the "people power" revolution that brought her to office 19 months ago.