QUITE surprisingly, given the 36 years his family had been demonized by the media, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s big advantage over most of his predecessors has been an acquiescent press.
The firing by The Philippine Star of columnist Ramon Tulfo last Monday — who had shifted just in the past few months from being a friend of the Marcos couple to a vehement critic — is another step in strengthening the administration’s hold over media, or alternatively, it represents another nail in the coffin of press freedom.*
I was shocked that not a single broadsheet or tabloid reported Tulfo’s sacking, with the Star arrogantly not even bothering to explain why it kicked out its most widely read columnist. Love Tulfo or hate him, he has been a major personality in the Philippine press, and his dismissal is news. And to use a version of that cliché, if a newspaper could do that to a Tulfo, it can do that to any media man.
Print media’s near-servility to the Marcos couple is due to several different factors. The Belmonte family sold in 2014, reportedly for P4 billion, its majority stake in The Philippine Star, one of the Yellowest papers before, to the First Pacific group. Its owner, through thick corporate layers, is the Indonesian Anthoni Salim. The Star’s board chairman Ray Espinosa is a director of the holding firm, the Hong Kong-based First Pacific Co. Ltd, and CEO Manuel V. Pangilinan’s right-hand man. First Pacific’s Hastings Holdings has full ownership of Business World and 22 percent of the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
The bulk of the conglomerate’s revenues in the Philippines are public utilities (PLDT, power generation, and toll expressway), and hence vulnerable to government regulatory bodies. The Star therefore can’t offend the Palace, and would be quick to fire any columnist creating trouble for the First Couple.
Once Yellower than the Star, the Philippine Daily Inquirer has lost its belligerence against non-yellow administrations, especially after Letty Magsanoc — who had declared herself the torch-bearer of the EDSA revolution — passed away in 2015. The Inquirer’s owners lost a lot when the Duterte administration took away from them the government-owned Mile Long Commercial Center, which they had held anomalously since the Marcos regime. That likely etched into their heads the lesson that it certainly isn’t financially rewarding to go against a government.
The Inquirer‘s competitive edge now are its entertainment and property sections, with its once-feared editorial section reduced to a page most days, drastically limiting what was before the public address system of Yellow and even Red contributors.
What obviously facilitated the Inquirer‘s migration from the Yellow camp is the fact that Marcos’ cousin, Philip Romualdez, is the husband of Alexandra Prieto, the owning clan’s main representative in running the newspaper. Romualdez also owns the tabloid People’s Tonight, which had been established during martial law, and which the Romualdez family managed to retrieve from government hands in 2009.
Philip’s brother, House Speaker Martin Romualdez, owns the Manila Standard, which has good opinion writers, including Emil Jurado, the oldest, continuously writing columnist.
The Manila Bulletin has always very strictly supported whoever is in power, starting during the martial law days, when Ferdinand E. Marcos allegedly was its main secret owner.
Only two newspapers, in ownership and output, don’t seem to care whether the Palace gets angry over its coverage and opinion pieces. One is this newspaper, The Manila Times, the third or fourth biggest broadsheet now in print circulation and internet viewership, owned by Dante A. Ang and run by his son, Dante “Klink” Ang 2nd. The other is the Daily Tribune, owned by veteran PR man Willie Fernandez, the newspaper’s president. The paper is said to be close to former president Rodrigo Duterte, reflected by the fact that among its columnists are former Duterte chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo and presidential special assistant Christopher Lawrence “Bong” Go.
Except of course during martial law, I don’t think there’s ever been such a tight hold over the media by an administration. Newspapers today are even getting to be more and more concerned that they don’t cross an administration because of a curious factor. Government announcements are required to be published in newspapers, while companies are advertising more and more in internet venues, especially social media as well as in TV, including internet TV.
Even the news website Rappler, one of three entities that fed the International Criminal Court falsehoods on the human rights violations during the Duterte administration has lost its fangs now in covering this administration. I suspect it is sucking up to this government in the hope that it could help its CEO Maria Ressa evade prison due to her conviction by an appellate court on the libel charges filed against her by a businessman.
So there, this administration’s tight hold on print media. It should use that huge advantage to undertake the boldest and most difficult of reforms.
To be fair
*However, I was informed by my sources yesterday that Erwin Tulfo, speaking for the other two brothers (Raffy and Ben) yesterday went to the Palace to personally apologize to First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos, telling her that it was they who had asked the Star’s board to fire Ramon as his columns had hurt many people, including their family. My source did not explain why they thought this was so. The “board” had agreed to kick out Tulfo February 16.
“Board”? Because of the First Pacific’s 60 percent shares (through Hastings Holdings and PLDT Pension Fund) in the Star, its board in decision-making terms consists of chairman Ray Espinosa who makes no major move without the clearance of First Pacific CEO Manuel V. Pangilinan. Tsk tsk.. they now owe “MVP.”
If true, this doesn’t change at all the thesis of this column: Why would the Tulfo brothers ask their eldest brother to be fired, except to please the Palace? Why would the Philstar “board” agree to a request by, of all people, the brothers of their top columnist? Or did they hint that the Palace was angry at Tulfo and wanted him out?
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