Is a short memory a major flaw in Vice President Jejomar Binay’s P200-million damage suit against the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Ombudsman, plus 11 other officials?
“Charges to scare is the defense of the corrupt,” snapped Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano in response to the suit. Based on testimony at the hearings of the Senate blue ribbon subcommittee, Binay “stole from the people of Makati while he was city mayor.”
Binay should perhaps also hit the recall button to 1999, when a number of Filipino journalists were locked in bitter conflict with a cocky, often soused, President Joseph Ejercito Estrada.
In July 1999, the Manila Times changed hands amid charges that Estrada had engineered the sale because of the paper’s critical coverage of his administration.
A month earlier, Estrada sued the paper for P101 million. The “sore point” stemmed from a report alleging corruption in a public works contract.
The Times apologized, the suit was dropped. But according to sources, Estrada threatened to retaliate against the holdings of the Gokongweis, the family that owned the paper.
The Gokongweis folded. They sold the Times to a housing magnate with zero newspaper experience. The paper’s former editor, Malou Mangahas, accused “a group of persons closely identified with President Estrada [of seeking] … to tame a critical press, through the back door.”
By Dec. 30, 1999, the entire senior editorial staff of the Times had either quit or been fired. The new publisher was once a senior information official in Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law government.
At about the same time, the Estrada administration also organized an advertising boycott against the country’s largest newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which has long exposed government scandals and irregularities.
In July 1999, virtually all Filipino movie producers canceled their ad placements in the paper following a meeting with the then president. “Sources present” at the meeting asserted that Estrada had offered, as a quid pro quo, tax breaks to the movie industry.
A number of government corporations and pro-Estrada businesses also yanked their ads, including the Philippine National Bank, Social Security System, and Land Bank of the Philippines. So did the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co. and Smart Communications.
Movie producers, whose ads were an important segment of the paper’s revenue base, said they withdrew their placements from the Inquirer as “a gesture of sympathy” for President Estrada.
The ad pullout began on July 10, two days after a group of producers met with Estrada and requested tax breaks for their industry. Estrada’s spokesman later announced that the tax breaks had been approved.
In a July 21 letter to Estrada, the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out that the mere appearance of government interference in the media could have a profoundly chilling effect. The organization urged Estrada to call for an end to the advertising boycott of the Inquirer and disavow any support for such harassment campaigns.
“This is a blatant case of intimidation,” Inquirer publisher Isagani Yambot, since deceased, wrote then. “[The President is saying] stop publishing negative stories about me [and my administration].”
Some advertisers had tiptoed back by December 1999, but the key movie ads had not reappeared at year’s end. Opposition leaders accused Estrada of attacking press freedom, and individual journalists were alarmed by the events.
Did most competing newspapers choose not to protest the Estrada administration’s actions? Why were local press organizations silent, leading critics to lament a lack of professional solidarity?
“Instead of Marcos-style tactics to control the press, more sophisticated methods of influencing media reportage were used,” said journalist Sheila Coronel of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, who is now dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
“Instead of the strong arm of the state, market mechanisms are being employed to put the squeeze on critical reportage…” said Coronel. “But whether done directly through the state or through market mechanisms, these tactics undermine the independence of the media. They tamp down on the diversity of voices offered to the public.”
That was then. Now comes VP Binay and his damage suit. “We are at a loss why the Vice President has singled out the Philippine Daily Inquirer,” the paper said in a statement. His own complaint mentions some defendants as getting “maximum media mileage” from other media outfits.
That’s truncated memory.
Juan L. Mercado was a communication officer for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Bangkok. Thereafter, he was posted in FAO headquarters in Rome, Italy, as attaché de cabinet. He wrote for the Inquirer as a regular columnist from February 2004 until December 2014.