Businessman in talks to buy newspaper critical of Duterte

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

In a statement yesterday, Mrs Marixi Rufino-Prieto said the decision to sell her family's 85 per cent stake in the Philippine Daily Inquirer 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". Mr Ang said in a separate statement that he is "looking forward to being part of this venerable institution".

Neither side disclosed how much the deal will be worth, but it should top the 3.5 billion pesos (S$95 million) that businessman Manuel Pangilinan had paid for The Philippine Star, the No. 3 newspaper, in 2013.

The Inquirer, which claims a circulation of about 1.4 million, was founded in 1985, at the peak of the anti-Marcos movement. Its owners at the time backed Mrs Corazon Aquino, widow of assassinated opposition leader Benigno Aquino, in her bid to unseat strongman Ferdinand Marcos in 1986. Her son, Mr Benigno Aquino III, was himself president from 2010 to 2016.

The newspaper has been critical of some governments, producing exclusive stories that, among others, forced then President Joseph Estrada to step down over a massive corruption scandal in 2001.

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

He has also threatened "to go after" the newspaper's current owners, the Prieto and Rufino families, to force them to give up their claims on a 2.9ha prime government property, known as Mile Long, that they have been leasing from the government through Sunvar Realty Development.

"I am not threatening them, but some day their karma will catch up with them," Mr Duterte said in an earlier speech, referring to the Prieto and Rufino families.

The government has been trying to recover Mile Long from Sunvar since 2002, claiming that the firm was not paying enough for how much it was earning from the property. In 2015, a court ordered Sunvar to vacate the property and pay the government 478.2 million pesos in rent arrears. An appellate court struck down the ruling last year, recognising Sunvar's right to have its lease of Mile Long renewed for 25 more years. The dispute is still being heard in court.

Mr Ang is a supporter of Mr Duterte. He has offered to donate one billion pesos to fund a drug rehabilitation centre.

He had also offered to buy Mr Duterte a private jet that he could use instead of taking commercial flights. But the President told Mr Ang to instead buy land plots that could be developed for the poor.

Mr Duterte has also been as scathing in his attacks against another media giant, ABS-CBN, whose owners have also been close to the Aquino family.

He has accused the television broadcaster of supporting his rivals during last year's election, claiming it refused to run one of his ads, and yet kept the money his campaign had already paid for it. He has threatened to have ABS-CBN's franchise revoked when it expires in 2020.

Under Philippine laws, ABS-CBN will have to convince the Duterte- controlled Congress to renew its franchise.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2017, with the headline 'Businessman in talks to buy newspaper critical of Duterte'. Print Edition | Subscribe