MANILA, Philippines – When big news rocked the newsroom of the Philippines' biggest newspaper on July 17, 2017, two key figures that played remarkable roles in the spunk and growth of the Philippine Daily Inquirer were noticeably absent: Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc and President and CEO Alexandra "Sandy" Prieto-Romualdez.
Magsanoc had died in December 2015. Her sparring partner, Prieto-Romualdez, decided to take a vacation when her mother announced to the Inquirer staff that the family had sold its majority stake in the newspaper to business tycoon Ramon S. Ang, also the President's close friend.
It must have been too much to bear for Prieto-Romualdez. She and Magsanoc, after all, had weathered many a crisis that usually visits an aggressive media company caught in a love-hate relationship with the powers that be.
Without Magsanoc and in the face of unrelenting pressure from the Duterte administration, Prieto-Romualdez and her family gave up their 25-year-old control of the Inquirer. "They were bullied," said a media business executive who knows the Prietos well.
The bullying was made publicly – and behind the scenes.
President Rodrigo Duterte started with subtle hits against the newspaper, particularly during his first State of the Nation Address (SONA) in 2016, when he decried the Inquirer's famous Pieta-like front page photo of a victim of the war on drugs.
Several months later, on March 30, ranting over the alleged “unfair news” written about him, Duterte said that karma was sure to catch the "bullshit" Inquirer. “Dapat may magsabi sa inyo ngayon, mga putang-ina ninyo, sinobrahan 'nyo ang kalokohan ninyo," he said during the oath-taking of government officials in Malacañang. (Someone should tell you, "You are sons of bitches, you went too far in your nonsense.")
The Inquirer has maintained a running list of alleged drug personalities allegedly killed in the administration's violent and bloody war on drugs.
It had to issue a statement, taking "exception” to these allegations and stressing that it has always “endeavored to get the administration's side of any controversy.”
This did not stop Duterte’s tirades against what he described as a “rude” newspaper.
Less than a week after, on April 5, he accused an alleged Prieto “son-in-law” of earning more than his colleagues at the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) in 2013. The man in question, Briccio Santos, is the uncle-in-law of Sandy Prieto-Romualdez. Sandy married businessman Benjamin Philip Romualdez, president of the Chamber of Mines and Benguet Corporation and a nephew of former first lady and now Ilocos Norte Representative Imelda Marcos.
By the start of the second half of 2017, Duterte focused on another issue involving the family – their Mile Long property.
The 2.9-hectare property had previously been the subject of a long ordeal since the early 2000s, peaking with a case filed by the National Power Corporation (Napocor) through the Office of the Solicitor General during the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2009.
Duterte, however, took it to another level – in public.
On July 1, he accused the newspaper of owing P8 billion in taxes over the property which is the subject of a court case between Makati City and Sunvar Realty Development Corporation, a company owned by the Rufino and Prieto families.
Two weeks after, on July 17, Duterte threatened to turn the property into socialized housing, accusing the Prietos of “swindling” the government. "These newspaper owners, who do they think they are? The way they editorialize people in government saying they are thieves….,” he said. “You have hostaged a government property for so long a time and collected the rentals there. That is swindling.”
On July 19, the Court of Appeals (CA) affirmed its earlier ruling that a Makati court has no jurisdiction to hear the petition for injunction filed by Sunvar. This puts the government ahead in the legal race as it already won an ejectment case in 2015. (READ: Prietos lose another round at CA in Mile Long dispute)
Solicitor General Jose Calida on July 28 demanded that Sunvar vacate the property, saying that the Prietos "have used your newspaper, Philippine Daily Inquirer, to shield your shenanigans."
Newsroom feels pressure
The pressures soon began to be felt in the newsroom.
Editors would be asked if "this certain story was really necessary," and they would end up spending precious time justifying stories to the owners, according to an Inquirer editor.
They tried to persuade the family to stand their ground, the same position they took during the Estrada years – when then president Joseph Estrada also put political and commercial pressure on them for exposing his alleged ill-gotten wealth.
But this was not the Estrada regime, the editors were told. The family was not just referring to the style of Estrada, that suddenly seemed benign, but also to the state of the newspaper business. The Prietos could afford to stand up to Estrada then because, among others, the Inquirer was raking it in during those years. Not anymore. Its profits have dwindled in the last decade. (READ: FAST FACTS: What you should know about the Inquirer Group)
Aware of the difficult terrain that the newspaper was navigating under Duterte, some Inquirer editors exerted extra effort to show balance in their stories to show management they were not being unreasonable.
"We would catch ourselves practicing self-censorship," one of them said. "It was sad and tears were shed," said another.
Nothing they did, though, could seem to pacify the powers that be.
About two weeks before the talks with Ang were finalized, the signal of an ad boycott became clear, according to one insider. Reminiscent of the Estrada years, this – among other factors – facilitated the sale of the Prieto shares to Ang, the same insider added.
Today, the Inquirer is on the brink of a massive reorganization with the looming takeover of Ang.
Did the Inquirer's sale buy the Prietos some peace? Not if one goes by the President's latest tirade against them – when he said he not only wanted to sue them, he also wanted to see them in jail. (READ: Duterte wants to sue Prietos, Rufinos for economic sabotage)
In their official statements, the Prietos said that the sale to Ang was a purely business decision, a strategic one that's needed, given the crisis in the newspaper industry and the massive shift to digital. They have been in talks since 2014, according to an Inquirer report.
They call Ang a "longstanding friend and business partner” yet many fear that the takeover could affect independent media in the Philippines, given the businessman’s close ties to Duterte.
This relationship manifests in the fact that the business interests of the 11th richest man in the Philippines – including conglomerate San Miguel Corporation – remain untouched by Duterte’s constant rage against select business personalities.
One does not need to dig to see the “deep” friendship between the two. (READ: Meet Ramon Ang, Filipino billionaire and Duterte's friend)
During the 2016 presidential campaign period, the businessman was one of the former Davao City’s contributors, even offering to buy him a private jet for his safety. (READ: Duterte: San Miguel's Ramon Ang was campaign donor)
Politically savvy, he was also known to have supported then presidential candidate Grace Poe.
Ang has been supporting Duterte’s projects, including the intense anti-illegal drug campaign which has drawn criticism from local and international organizations. In fact, San Miguel donated P1 billion to the government to build new drug rehabilitation facilities.
At one time, Duterte said of Ang: “Alam mo, we became fast friends because, alam mo, ang tao may ano eh (You know, we became fast friends because you know, the person has)…You have a disarming attitude of humility. Talagang madi-disarm ka (So you will really be disarmed), so we became fast friends. Until now.”
Inquirer employees have expressed their concern over what could happen with the incoming management. They, however, hope that their editors would be “strong enough, brave enough” to resist pressure from management in case it mounts. For now, the mood in the newsroom is "wait and see", according to insiders. (READ: Inquirer employees surprised, worried about Ramon Ang buyout)
At present, due diligence is still being carried out and approval by the Philippine Competitive Commission of the sale to Ang is still being awaited.
Republic Act (RA) No. 10667, also known as the Philippine Competition Act, requires that before a transaction can be sealed, the antitrust regulator should be notified for merger and acquisition deals whose transaction values are above P1 billion.
The completion of these requirements is not expected to take long, however.
Yet some political observers have compared the impending takeover of Ang to what happened with The Manila Times after it was sued by former president Joseph Estrada in 1999. (READ: Is the Inquirer's impending sale a Manila Times redux?)
But the Inquirer said in a statement that the Prietos are “confident that Mr Ang will uphold the Inquirer Group's commitment to pursuing highest standards of journalism.” After all, insiders said, business wisdom would dictate that the new owners and managers maintain and uphold the credibility and independence of the paper, the very capital that built the Inquirer's value through the years.
"The Inquirer was a mission, it was an advocacy. You stay in the media as a steward. When Eggie [former Inquirer publisher Eugenia Apostol] sold the Inquirer, she believed it was to take the Inquirer further. The time has come for the Prietos to find someone who will take care of it," said another insider.
The call for journalism independence, however, may be marred as the names of those being floated by incoming management to assume top editorial positions in the Inquirer, according to the grapevine, include those known to be Duterte supporters.
How will this affect the rich history – spanning almost 32 years – of the Inquirer and eventually Philippine media? – with reports from Jodesz Gavilan/Rappler.com