Editor who took on Ferdinand Marcos dies at age 74

Mrs Magsanoc ran the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which has toppled presidents, for 24 years.
Mrs Magsanoc ran the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which has toppled presidents, for 24 years.

Few in the Philippines can sow fear in the hearts of those in power the way veteran journalist Letty Jimenez Magsanoc can.

For 24 years, Mrs Magsanoc was at the helm of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a centre-left newspaper that has toppled presidents, sent powerful politicians to jail and irked celebrities, crime bosses and the nation's wealthiest families.

She survived advertising boycotts, countless libel suits and death threats, holding sway in her newsroom with a mix of offbeat humour and an unbending, often stubborn, will to chase the news no matter where it led to.

Late in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, the 74-year-old editor-in-chief of the Inquirer died, struck down by a heart attack.

In a way, she shaped the Inquirer after her own image: often anti-establishment and never co-opted.

NOT FOR WOMEN ONLY

The last place I wanted to land in, in any publication, was the women's pages, which I consider a journalism ghetto.

I was trying to get away from writing about lipstick and fashion. Fortunately, I was allowed to write about almost anything. Sometimes, it had nothing to do with women.

MRS LETTY JIMENEZ MAGSANOC, veteran journalist, in the book The Philippine Press Under Siege

She was among a group of journalists who had to fight to breathe in an era when the Philippine media was being suffocated by a brutal, heavy-handed dictatorship.

President Ferdinand Marcos kept a tight leash on the media, and a call from him was often enough to get reporters and editors fired.

Mrs Magsanoc joined the Marcos-controlled Manila Bulletin in 1969, becoming women's section editor of the newspaper's Sunday magazine, Panorama.

"The last place I wanted to land in, in any publication, was the women's pages, which I consider a journalism ghetto. I was trying to get away from writing about lipstick and fashion. Fortunately, I was allowed to write about almost anything. Sometimes, it had nothing to do with women," she was quoted as saying in the book The Philippine Press Under Siege.

In 1981, after she wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about Mr Marcos' third inauguration that opened with Handel's "And he shall reign forever and ever", Mr Marcos made a call to the Bulletin's owners and Mrs Magsanoc was forced out of Panorama.

Three years later, she was drafted by Mrs Eugenia Apostol, publisher of a variety magazine that was testing the limits of how much criticism Mr Marcos was willing to tolerate.

The magazine's extensive coverage of the assassination of Mr Marcos' chief nemesis, former senator Benigno Aquino, and the outpouring of public anger that followed, amid the mainstream media's silence, heralded the emergence of the "mosquito press".

Overnight, newspapers - often scrappily put together - emerged, serving news to a public starving for uncensored information.

The Inquirer, formed in 1985 by Mrs Apostol with other publishers, was among those newspapers.

Mrs Magsanoc was given the paper's reins in 1991. By then, the Inquirer had overtaken the Bulletin as the nation's biggest daily, with a circulation exceeding 250,000.

Mrs Magsanoc was the steely presence that kept the Inquirer on top, keeping it on an even keel amid crises that felled lesser newspapers.

In 2000, the paper ran a series of stories that linked then President Joseph Estrada with billions of pesos in payoffs from operators of a massive illegal lottery. A year later, Mr Estrada was forced to step down following a military- backed revolt.

Last year, it broke a story about a massive corruption scam involving billions worth of pork barrel funds. That landed three powerful senators in jail.

But Mrs Magsanoc also has had to preside over some of the Inquirer's most embarrassing moments. Earlier this year, it ran a headline that said a Filipino drug mule sentenced to death in Indonesia had been executed. She was, in fact, given a reprieve.

The eldest of nine children, Mrs Magsanoc was born in 1941, a year before Japan invaded the Philippines, and spent most of her young life in the United States. In 1963, she married Dr Carlos Magsanoc, a medical doctor. They have a daughter, Mrs Kara Alikpala, also a journalist, and two sons, Marty and Nikko, both doctors. 

When she died, the consensus in the country was that the Philippines has lost a bedrock of journalism. President Benigno Aquino called her the nation's "source of strength".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 28, 2015, with the headline 'Editor who took on Ferdinand Marcos dies at age 74'. Print Edition | Subscribe