JULY 3, 2000  

Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc

Editor-in-Chief -- Philippine Daily Inquirer -- Philippines

Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc may not be much over 5 feet tall, but she's big enough to stand up to Philippine President Joseph E. Estrada. Magsanoc, editor-in-chief of Manila's largest daily, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, built her journalistic career by taking on the country's corrupt and powerful. She was fired from her first reporting job in 1981 because she wrote something critical of then-dictator Ferdinand Marcos--without realizing he owned the paper. But rather than retreat, she joined the predecessor to the Inquirer, where she rose to top editor in 1991.

So when Estrada tried to close down her paper by organizing an advertising boycott last year, she was ready to fight back. The President was angry that the Inquirer was running stories critical of his administration, as well as editorials admonishing him for a failure of leadership. He accused the paper of damaging the image of the country and driving away foreign investors. When the Inquirer broke a story about his son using a government jet to visit his girlfriend in the south, Estrada was furious. He barred Inquirer reporters from his briefings and rallied his friends--who run the Philippines' major companies and were the Inquirer's major advertisers--to the cause. Ad placements dropped 80% overnight, with only one major advertiser, the Ayala Group, refusing to heed the boycott (page 36A17).

But Magsanoc ordered coverage as usual. The paper scaled back to 40 pages from 62, and shut off the air conditioning at 6 p.m. But every reporter still got a paycheck--and kept reporting. "We barely survived," says Magsanoc, a gravelly voiced smoker in her fifties whose father was a well-known military officer and ambassador.

Magsanoc says the boycott, which drew international condemnation and was finally lifted in November after four months, ended up being a time of introspection and strengthening for the paper, which ran occasional tabloid-style stories. "We had sort of glossed over things and become smug," she admits, "so this was a good wake-up call to go back to the basics of fairness and accuracy."

A Chat with Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc

Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc is editor-in-chief of the Philippine Daily Enquirer, Manila's largest daily. When an angry President Joseph E. Estrada organized an advertising boycott last year, Jimenez-Magsanoc kept her reporters hammering away -- but she also reflected on standards of fairness and accuracy. She recently spoke with Asia Editor Sheri Prasso at her home in suburban Manila. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What was your background growing up? Have you always wanted to be a journalist?
A: Always. I used to volunteer in grade school to write the compositions of my classmates. I grew up in Manila. My father was a colonel in the military who took early retirement and later became an ambassador to [South] Korea. He was also head of intelligence and head of the Philippine National Railways. In the 1950s, I believe he was working with the CIA. He always used to tell stories at dinner.

All this got me very curious about what was going on in the world. I went to a convent school, so during Lent, you know, you have to give up something that you like, so I gave up reading the newspaper because I loved reading newspapers. My heroes were newspapermen, not movie stars.

Q: Where did you start out reporting?
A: I started as a reporter for the Bulletin in 1981, but I got fired. I wrote something [then-dictator Ferdinand] Marcos didn't like. They [Marcos and his wife, Imelda] owned the paper I was working for, but I didn't know it. I wish they had told me they owned the paper! [Then I joined the predecessor to the Inquirer, then called Philippine Panorama.] In 1986, there was the People Power revolt, and we were in a unique position. We felt it was fair to be unfair to the Marcoses at that time. It was a tougher task to do that [than to stand up to Estrada].

Q: Why was President Estrada angry? What did you write?
A: The Philippines is a highly personalistic society. On the eve of the election, there was a conference of bishops, and they told the people, "Don't vote for a 'womanizer and a drunkard,'" which was a reference to "Erap," which is the President's nickname. So we ran the headline, "Bishops: Anybody But Erap." He hasn't forgotten that. This has something to do with the President's personality. He takes everything as a personal affront.

We just continue to do our work. When his son took off in a government jet to visit his girlfriend in the south, we wrote the story. He had no official mission, his lodging was paid by local officials. We came out with the story -- it was a scoop! They're not really big stories, just little stories that pile up.

We're actually personal friends, from before [when Estrada was a famous movie actor]. He believed that when he became President, since we were friends, you can't say anything against him. I personally like the man. But he doesn't know where to draw the line between personal and professional. The President feels we should not criticize him, that it drives away investors, and that we're trying to pull down the [reputation of] the country.

Q: Did you call for his resignation?
A: We never asked him to resign, but we often asked him to govern, to become presidential. He's not an actor anymore.

It finally came to a head last year, in July. Our big advertisers started pulling out. It was the first time [in the Philippines] that there was an organized boycott to try to influence the press. I'm sure it was the President who organized it because some of the really big advertisers like PLDT [Philippines Long Distance Telecommunications] sent word to us that they didn't want to do it, but that it was 'someone they couldn't say no to,' that it would affect their business, too. Ads dropped 80%, and it cost 209,000 pesos [$5,225) a day. Some advertisers refused to honor it, like the Ayala Group, which owns Globe Telecom. They refused to be bullied. They even added more ads. It was very encouraging. There were some brave ones, among small advertisers, too.

Even though the boycott is over, the Conjuanco companies [owned by a close friend of Estrada's who owns the San Miguel brewery] are still not advertising as regularly as they used to. And Lucio Tan [another close friend of Estrada who owns several major businesses, including Philippine Airlines] is definitely still not advertising. The president denied [he organized the boycott], but everybody knew.

Q: When did the boycott end?
A: In November. From July to November we barely survived. But all this time, we held fast [in reporting the news]. We did a lot of self-criticism. We did see there was some in-your-face-reporting, and there were times when we didn't tell the other side. So now that's a mantra for us, 'Tell the other side.' There was stuff we took for granted because we were No. 1. It was a good wake-up call to go back to the basics of fairness and accuracy. We had sort of glossed over things and become smug. It was a good time to examine ourselves. We want to get the other side.

Q: How did you survive? Did you cut costs, or lay off people?
A: We scaled back to 40 pages and normally we are 62. There were some helpful statements of support, such as from the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York. There was a time when the business side started to question the editorial side. We had to explain to them what we were doing. But they supported us. We cut back on expenses, turned off the air-conditioning at 6 p.m. Nobody was laid off. After going through that, we know that journalists are only as free as their owners allow. Public opinion was behind us. It boosted circulation.

Q: What other repercussions did your reporters face? They were banned from press conferences?
A: On three occasions we weren't allowed to President Estrada's "private" media meetings, which he calls "meriendas." He announced things there, big stories. It was his way of getting around having to invite the Inquirer. But other reporters were sympathetic -- they shared the news! We were also banned from a presidential trip abroad [on the presidential plane]. But we sent someone anyway, whether the president liked it or not. We paid our own way, which we always do anyway, even on the official plane.

Q: How did Estrada end the boycott?
A: The President invited us, the editors, to dinner, and we drank two bottles of 30,000 peso ($750) red wine. He explained his side. We promised fair and balanced reporting. I think he's learned his lesson, too.