Despite enjoying one of the freest presses in Asia, a number of Filipino journalists critical of President Joseph Ejercito Estrada found themselves in bitter conflict with the presidential palace in 1999. Those conflicts led to renewed fears that the media could find themselves under official assault, despite constitutional guarantees protecting a free press.
In July, The Manila Times, the country's oldest newspaper, changed hands amid charges that Estrada had engineered the sale because of the paper's critical coverage of his administration. In March, Estrada sued the paper for 101 million pesos (US$2.6 million) over a story alleging government corruption in the awarding of a public works contract. When the paper apologized, the suit was dropped. But sources inside the paper said that the government threatened to retaliate against the substantial industrial holdings of the Chinese-Filipino family that owned the paper unless the paper's critical tone changed.
When The Manila Times was finally sold to a housing magnate with no previous 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."
In December, it was revealed that the paper had again been sold, this time to a group headed by the son of a close presidential advisor. By December 30, the entire senior editorial staff had either resigned or been fired; some staffers charged that the presidential palace was now controlling the editorial director of the paper. Adrian Cristobal, the paper's new publisher, was once a senior information official in the martial law government of the late Ferdinand Marcos.
The presidential palace was also widely implicated in an advertising boycott organized against the country's largest daily, The Philippine Daily Inquirer, which had covered a wide range of government scandals. In July, virtually all Filipino movie producers canceled their advertisements in the Inquirer following a meeting with the president, who was a popular film star before entering politics. Sources present at the meeting told Manila newspapers that Estrada asked them to withdraw their ads as a quid pro quo for granting tax breaks to the movie industry.
At around the same time, a number of government corporations and pro-Estrada businesses also pulled their advertising from the paper, leading Inquirer publisher Isagani Yambot to tell CPJ in a letter, "This is a blatant case of intimidation: [The president is saying] stop publishing negative stories about me and my administration or my movie and business cronies and government financial institutions will pull out their ads from your paper."
Some advertisers had returned by December, according to Inquirer sources, but the lucrative movie ads had yet to reappear at year's end. Opposition leaders accused Estrada of attacking press freedom, and individual journalists were alarmed by the events. But most competing newspapers failed to protest against the government's actions, and most local press organizations remained 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 are being used," veteran journalist Sheila Coronel, of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, told an audience of prominent business leaders in August. "Instead of the strong arm of the state, market mechanisms are being employed to put the squeeze on critical reportage.... But whether done directly through the state or through market mechanisms, these tactics undermine the independence of the media and reduce the diversity of voices offered to the public," said Coronel.
Philippine Daily Inquirer HARASSED
Several large private and government-run corporations withdrew their advertising from the Philippine Daily Inquirer, even though it has the highest circulation of any daily in the country. President Joseph Ejercito Estrada had been openly critical of the Inquirer; the president contended that the paper published only negative stories about him, a charge the Inquirer denied.
Movie producers, whose ads were an important segment of the newspaper's revenue base, stated in the local and international press that they withdrew their advertisements from the Inquirer as a "gesture of sympathy" for President Estrada. The pullout began on July 10, two days after a group of producers met with the president and requested tax breaks for their industry. President Estrada's spokesman later announced that the tax breaks had been approved.
The Inquirer also told CPJ that three large government-run corporations, the Land Bank of the Philippines, the Philippine National Bank, and the Social Security system, had withdrawn their advertising from the paper, along with the Philippines' largest telecommunications company, Philippine Long Distance Telephone, and its sister company, Smart Communications.
In a July 21 letter to President Estrada, CPJ noted that the mere appearance of government interference with the media can have a profoundly chilling effect. CPJ urged Estrada to call for an end to the advertising boycott of the Inquirer and disavow any support for such harassment campaigns.