Businessman and ally of President Rodrigo Duterte in talks to buy Philippine Daily Inquirer for at least $95 million

San Miguel Corporation president Ramon Ang speaking at the Philippine Stock Exchange during the listing of San Miguel in Manila's financial district on March 30, 2016.
San Miguel Corporation president Ramon Ang speaking at the Philippine Stock Exchange during the listing of San Miguel in Manila's financial district on March 30, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA - Under unrelenting pressure from President Rodrigo Duterte, the family that owns top newspaper Philippine Daily Inquirer is selling its stake to the chief executive of San Miguel Corporation, the country's fourth-largest conglomerate, in a deal worth at least S$95 million.

Inquirer president Alexandra Prieto-Romualdez said in a statement on Monday (July 17) that the decision to sell her family's 75 per cent stake to Mr Ramon Ang "is a strategic business decision" to "maximise growth opportunities".

A source privy to the transaction said Mr Ang will be acquiring the Inquirer as "a personal investment".

The deal's value is "still subject to due diligence", he added. But it should be worth more than the 3.5 billion pesos (S$95 million) that businessman Manuel Pangilinan was reported to have paid for control of No. 3 newspaper, The Philippine Star.

Ms Romualdez disclosed that her family had been in talks since 2014 with Mr Ang, a supporter of Mr Duterte, who has offered to donate 1 billion pesos to fund a drug rehabilitation centre.

Mr Duterte said in May that Mr Ang had offered to buy him a private jet that he could use instead of taking commercial flights, but that he told the businessman to buy land plots that could be developed for the poor.

Mr Duterte has been smarting from what he sees as the Inquirer's unfair coverage of his election campaign and bloody war on the narcotics trade. He has called its editors and reporters "shameless… sons of whore journalists".

He has repeatedly complained that the newspaper called him out for the thousands killed in his anti-crime drive, while its owners - the Prieto-Rufino clan - enjoy supposed lopsided deals with previous governments.

He has threatened "to go after" the Prietos and the Rufinos to force them to give up their claims on a 2.9ha prime property known as "Mile Long" that they have been sub-leasing from the government since 1985 through Sunvar Realty Development.

"I am not threatening them, but someday their karma will catch up with them," Mr Duterte had said, referring to the two families.

The government has been trying to recover Mile Long from Sunvar since 2002.

In 2015, a court ordered Sunvar to vacate the property and pay the government 478.2 million pesos in rent arrears. But an appellate court held back this ruling in 2016, recognising Sunvar's right to have its 25-year lease of Mile Long renewed for 25 more years. The dispute is still being heard in court.

Mr Duterte also sought to investigate an 8 million-peso tax settlement in 2014 between the revenue bureau and another of the Prietos' companies, Golden Donuts. A case against former internal revenue chief Kim Henares said the company owed as much as 1.56 billion pesos in unpaid taxes.

The Inquirer was founded in 1985, at the peak of the anti-Marcos movement. Its original owners backed Mrs Corazon Aquino, widow of assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino, in her bid to unseat strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Her son, Benigno Aquino III, is Mr Duterte's predessor as president.

The Inquirer became the Philippines' top newspaper soon after the 1986 "People Power" revolt that forced Marcos to flee to Hawaii, where he later died.

It has been critical of governments that followed, churning out scoops that, among others, forced then President Joseph Estrada to step down over massive corruption in 2001. Mr Estrada himself was responsible for shuttering another newspaper, The Manila Times.