Duterte and Ang’s shakedown of Inquirer

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The shocking announcement of the sale of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) to Ramon Ang, COO of San Miguel Corp., the biggest corporation in the Philippines, is a blow to press freedom not only in the Philippines but in the region.

The Philippines is touted to have the wildest press in Southeast Asia—a title that has become more and more a figment of the imagination in a region where press control is the norm rather than the exception.

But as the announcement shows, even the Inquirer is more the exception in the Philippines rather than the norm.

It has been the voice in the wilderness amid news media, print or broadcast, that are hardly independent of commercial and political interests. Now because of political pressure from the bully and murderous government of President Duterte, and because of capitalist economic considerations of the Rufino-Prieto family that controls and manages the Inquirer, the only beacon of free press in the Philippines and Southeast Asia is set to lose its luster, if not altogether extinguished.

The Inquirer Group of Companies, headed by Marixi Rufino-Prieto, announced that the deal with Ang was “a strategic business decision that will maximize growth opportunities for the Inquirer Group.” It did not seem to be the case.

The Rufino-Prietos had no valid reason to sell their majority ownership and control of the 31-year-old PDI. The family had plans to transition to new media and digital journalism. In fact, Inquirer was one of the first broadsheets in the country to venture into online journalism when it launched Inquirer.net in 1997.

But the Rufino-Prietos had lately come into pressure for their controversial real-estate dealings with the Marcos regime, as charged by President Duterte who ironically had pressed for the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani and who seemed to be backing losing vice presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr in the latter’s bid to have a recount of the 2016 election that he lost to Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo.

Ironicnically enough too, the Inquirer is headed by Alexandra Prieto-Romualdez, who’s married to a nephew of former first lady Imelda Marcos.

But it is a sign of PDI’s editorial independence that despite the Romualdez and Marcos ties of its owner-management, its editors have performed the noble and critical role of the press to check or criticize heavy-handed government policies, programs and practices against the public, in this case raising questions about Duterte’s anti-drug campaign that has led to several thousands of unaccountable killings of drug suspects as well as his quite treasonous coziness with China despite the communist totalitarian bully trespassing and practically claiming the entire sea between its territory and the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia and the Pacific!

Duterte has repeatedly used bully tactics and hate language and attacked the Inquirer and other critical news agencies, like ABS-CBN, calling them “rude, corrupt and unfair”—with expletives added. The Rufino-Prietos have felt the heat and realized Inquirer is an encumbrance to their larger business interests.

This incident shows that by and large, the free press in the Philippines is not free after all; it is beholden to business interests forever ingratiating themselves with political interests forever in league with economic interests so on and so forth. This vicious cycle explains the endemic poverty and the fundamental disaster of the Philippine nation-state.

It is ironic that just as the Rufino-Prietos are compromised by their business interests in effectively and independently running PDI, they have decided to turn it over to Ang, who’s just as, if not more than, compromised, because of his rather cozy financial ties with Duterte. The President himself said that Ang contributed to his election funding last year. “Ang gave me some money,” he had said in June 2016.

With Ang’s lack of journalistic background and knowledge on newspaper business, his totally ruthless and greedy capitalist business acumen, and the fact that his boss, Marcos crony Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, wrested control of SMC by using the coco levy from poor coconut farmers (just about the biggest wholesale heist in Philippine history!), the Inquirer is at risk of losing its editorial independence! Ang and SMC’s acquisition of the Inquirer is a blow not only to press freedom but to democracy, truth and justice!

Does the conglomerate have a long-term commitment to PDI or will Ang sell it when it is no longer useful to him? Think about the kind of editorial policies that are going to be implemented under his leadership.

Ang, whose businesses include SMC and Eagle Cement Corp., wants to get big infrastructure contracts from government. Bloomberg reported that Ang had submitted a plan to the Department of Transportation to build a P700-billion airport in Bulacan. So, would he just use PDI to further his business interests?

Yes, the Prietos have business interests but they have generally allowed the editors of the Inquirer wide latitude to exercise independent editorial judgment. If PDI becomes subservient to Ang—and Duterte, then there will be a lack of a strong watchdog versus the government.

This is reminiscent of former president Estrada’s time when he shook down Manila Times after putting the newspaper under intense political pressure. Estrada basically forced the Gokongwei family to sell it to Mark Jimenez, his crony. Looking closer, there is a parallelism; Ang donated to Duterte’s campaign and also shelled out money to build drug rehabilitation centers.

“Mark my word: This country will fly,” Ang had said in 2016. “This country will be a better place for our children and grandchildren because the drug problem will be eliminated under Duterte.” Presumably these words are an approbation of Duterte’s murderous steak coming from the COO of Southeast Asia’s biggest food and beverage firm. It could be said that here is one blue-chip CEO who eats extra-judicial killings for breakfast! What a cannibalistic appetite!

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