Philippines’ Duterte Claims a Crusading Newspaper’s Scalp

The July 7 announcement by Manila’s Prieto family that it would rid itself of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, arguably the country’s most important newspaper, has raised new consternation over the increasingly authoritarian posture of President Rodrigo Duterte, who declared war on the paper for its critical reporting of his bloody, violent drug war.

Duterte has repeatedly accused the newspaper's owners of tax evasion, alleging they hadn’t paid taxes on a government property in Makati City called Mile Long that the Prietos, a family with longtime Spanish antecedents, lease from the government. On April 5, he also accused Briccio Santos, a Prieto son-in-law and former chairman of the Film Development Council of the Philippines, of using public funds for personal travel.

The Inquirer announced on July 17 that tycoon Ramon Ang, the president of the San Miguel Beer conglomerate, would take a majority stake in the Inquirer Group of Companies, which publishes the country’s most-read broadsheet, with a million daily readers and another million on its website. The announcement drew immediate concern from press freedom advocates although Ang said the paper “will continue to uphold the highest journalistic standards and make a difference in the society it serves.”

However, a longtime observer who has spent decades in the Philippines said he has little optimism that San Miguel will continue to back aggressive journalism. The government owns 24 percent of the sprawling conglomerate, making it unlikely it will buck Duterte's tide. Besides, he said, “Duterte has a f—king hammerlock on this place.”

A bit more than a year into his six-year term, Duterte has declared martial law on the island of Mindanao over the Jihadist invasion of the city of Marawi and said he would arrest anybody who criticized him. He has said he would ignore the country’s Supreme Court if it ruled against martial law and has threatened to extend it to other parts of the country.

"It's not dependent on the whim of the Supreme Court. Should I believe them? When I see the situation is still chaotic and you ask me to lift it? I will arrest you and put you behind bars," Duterte said in a recent speech to local officials.

The attack on the paper by Duterte mirrors his onslaught against Leila De Lima, the former Justice Secretary in the Aquino administration, who was the biggest critic on his war on drugs. After an investigation into her personal life, and amid allegations of her complicity in drug trafficking at the notorious New Bilibid Prison, Duterte engineered her conviction on charges that have been widely branded as dubious and jailed her.

In May, he fired Benjamin Reyes, the chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board, when Reyes used the board’s official figures for drug users – 1.8 million, according to a 2015 survey, and has continued to use the figure of 4 million addicts, not users, to justify his war on drugs. The drugs board’s figures would put the Philippines in about the same category as other Southeast Asian nations as far as drug use.

Duterte's overall strategy in dealing with the media is similar to US President Donald Trump’s, prominent journalist Marites Danguilan Vitug told Al Jazeera in an earlier interview.

"Because many in the mainstream media tend to be critical of his war on drugs, and not just that, his other statements and, and policies - he tries to discredit us, and to make us less legitimate in the eyes of the public," Vitug said. "Reporters are having difficulty actually, in conducting real press conference with our president. A real conversation. Because his press conferences tend to be monologues. He doesn't want to be interrupted. He hardly completes a thought. So, the reporters are scared or intimidated to ask follow-up questions. So, our stories are not complete."

The Inquirer, which has repeatedly won international prizes including top awards from the Society of Publishers in Asia – Asia’s Pulitzer Prize – has excelled in its coverage of Duterte’s war on drugs, which is believed to have killed up to 10,000 people so far, almost exclusively the poorest of the Philippines’ poor. It was a photo of one of those deaths by Raffy Lerma that won the SOPA award for excellence this year.

In its 30 years of existence, the paper has won more than 400 awards in a country where journalistic reliability and integrity has long been problematic.

That said, the Daily Inquirer, which was founded in 1985 and has delivered powerful exposes on previous presidents going all the way back to the strongman Ferdinand Marcos and including Joseph Estrada, has like a long string of publications across the world faced diminishing revenues as readers turn to other forms of media.

“I am not saying the pressure isn’t there, but Marixi [Ruffino Prieto, the family matriarch] is first and foremost a business woman, and a tough one at that,” a well-wired political analyst told Asia Sentinel. “The Inquirer has been looking at rising costs and declining circulation and ad sales for some time, and now was a good time to sell. The family always looked at [the paper] as a business investment first and foremost and does not hold strong political views or have an overarching commitment to principles of freedom of the press. The family also recently divested itself of its majority stake in Shakeys [Pizza stores], but still controls 7-Eleven Philippines and has vast real estate holdings in the country.”

In addition to writing critically on the war on drugs, the Inquirer published documents during the presidential campaign alleging Duterte had several secret bank accounts totaling PHP2.2 billion (US$44.34 million) far above his declared assets statements, in contradiction to the image he has generated as incorruptible.

The newspaper published a stunning series of articles, backed up by minutely detailed documents, in March of 2015 on the massive P10 billion Pork Barrel scandal, which implicated an astonishing 20 members of the 26-member Senate and 100 members of the House of Representatives -- five sixths of the entire Senate and more than a third of the House of Representatives, involving lawmakers who funneled government money into their own pockets that was meant to improve the lives of their constituents in a desperately poor country.