Duterte making headlines by muzzling the free Press

The Inquirer has been on the offensive against Duterte from early on

By Clinton Palanca

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Published: Wed 23 Aug 2017, 10:00 PM

Last updated: Thu 24 Aug 2017, 12:00 AM

The editorial offices of The Philippine Daily Inquirer did not have an elevator, the unofficial rationale being that any reporter no longer nimble enough to make the three-flight climb would have to give way to younger staff. In recent years, the number of editors wheezing up the stairs forced the management to reconsider. The veteran editors now ride a sleek elevator to work alongside the new, bright-eyed idealists, who use social media to direct younger readers to the paper's website.

But a much more fundamental change is taking place at The Philippine Daily Inquirer. The blue masthead will stay the same, but the tenor of the paper will soon be completely different.

The Inquirer has held every Filipino president to account since 1985, when it was founded under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Today it's the only national broadsheet that is consistently critical of President Rodrigo Duterte and his violent administration. But the Duterte administration's allies are now forcing the paper's owners to sell it to a businessman close to the president who supports his war on drugs. The consequences for journalism in the Philippines will be disastrous.

In March, Duterte lashed out at the paper, as well as a television station, ABS-CBN. "I'm not trying to scare you, but one day karma will catch up with you," the president said. No one, except perhaps Duterte, expected a reckoning to come so quickly.

The Inquirer has faced more powerful adversaries. Under administrations it opposed - like that of Joseph Estrada, who was eventually convicted of plunder - The Inquirer was unmitigated in its denunciations. But it survived unscathed, unlike other outlets like The Manila Times, which was slapped with a libel suit in 1999 and eventually forced to sell.

The Inquirer has been on the offensive against Duterte from early on. It has issued stern editorials, run bold headlines and pulled no punches with its above-the-fold images from the crime scenes that have characterised the president's tenure. The paper's reporters have doggedly investigated corruption allegations against the president. The Inquirer kept a running list tallying the drug-war casualties it was able confirm - until February, when police stopped sharing information. The country's other major newspapers have been more accommodating of the Duterte administration; some, like The Manila Times, which is now owned by one of the president's allies, have been blatantly supportive.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer's reportage has been disparaged and diluted by the tide of fake news sites, partisan blogs and social media accounts to which so many Filipinos now look for news. But in the current climate, a newspaper reporting unpopular facts needs more than just good journalism - it needs allies. Thus far, there've been none.

Since his menacing speech about "karma," Duterte and his allies have been publicly bullying the paper. More recently, they have started to go after its owners. The Inquirer's majority shareholders, the Prieto-Rufino family, also own real estate concerns that government has accused of evading taxes. The president levelled corruption charges against The Inquirer, saying in April. After months of harassment, the owners announced in July that they would sell the paper to Ramon S. Ang, a businessman whom the president has described as a "fast friend."

Ang's team is now conducting due diligence and the sale is expected to go through soon. The new management is in transition talks. Ang has said that the paper "will continue to uphold the highest journalistic standards," but many on the staff are skeptical they will be able to maintain their independence. It is unknown who among the current editorial staff will be retained - or be inclined to stay.

All eyes are now on ABS-CBN broadcasting, which was also mentioned during the State of the Nation address, in which Durterte slammed the media for "not behaving." The station is owned by the prominent Lopez family, whose main business interests are in energy production, a field particularly vulnerable to government regulation. What's more, the station's media franchise expires in 2020 and the president has announced his intention to block its renewal.

The next-largest news outlet that is committed to proper investigations into the nightly killings and the Duterte administration's impunity is the website Rappler. Run by veteran investigative journalists, it is well respected and widely read, though mostly among the upper middle class. Yet even Rappler has been attacked by Duterte propagandists, while the president himself singled out the site during the same address, citing false foreign ownership allegations.

Despite the widespread coverage of Duterte's brutal drug war, his popularity in opinion polls is high, which he considers a mandate to continue his increasingly authoritarian rule. The opposition has a hard time finding a legitimate, respected venue in which to voice its concerns. Anyone with pockets deep enough to fund an opposition outlet will always be someone wealthy enough for the government to influence using its control over regulatory agencies and courts.

The de facto clampdown on a free Press is a matter of concern to anyone who cares about the ability of the people to speak up against the tightening hold of an authoritarian government. The Philippines is not a country without a conscience. But that conscience needs a voice. For an entire generation, The Philippine Daily Inquirer was that voice.

-NYT Syndicate

Clinton Palanca is a sociologist and a columnist for The Philippine Daily Inquirer's lifestyle section

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