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Blasted by Duterte, Philippine Daily Inquirer owners opt to sell

San Miguel boss Ramon Ang's plan to invest seen as a 'test' of press freedom

The Philippine Daily Inquirer's front page on July 18, a day after its owners said they were negotiating a sale to businessman Ramon Ang

MANILA -- The owners of the Philippine Daily Inquirer are poised to sell the widely read newspaper to billionaire Ramon Ang, following relentless verbal attacks by President Rodrigo Duterte.

Ang, the president of diversified conglomerate San Miguel, is to acquire the majority stake held by the Prieto family, the newspaper reported on Tuesday. The family's move to divest after 25 years is a "strategic business decision that it believes will maximize growth opportunities for the Inquirer group," the media group said.

The Inquirer group also owns a tabloid and a radio station. Ang, who is set to begin due diligence, said he has accepted the Prietos' invitation to invest. "The publication will continue to uphold the highest journalistic standards and make a difference in the society it serves," Ang said.

In public speeches, Duterte has frequently blasted the Philippine Daily Inquirer and leading broadcaster ABS-CBN. Both have released critical reports about his war on drugs, which has left thousands of suspected narcotics users and dealers dead.

"One of these days, I will come up with an expose," Duterte said on July 1, pointing to the Inquirer owners, whom the president accused of tax evasion.

This would not be the first time for a company owner to yield to pressure from the president. Last year, Philweb Chairman Roberto Ongpin divested from the online casino company after Duterte singled him out as an "oligarch" he wanted "to destroy."

The Inquirer, founded in 1985, has been instrumental in upholding press freedom, which was suppressed during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s. Recently, however, it has been accused of biased reporting on Duterte, who enjoys widespread popular support.

Public satisfaction with the president stood at 78% in the latest SWS survey.

Changing industry, changing owners

Newspapers in the Philippines, like their counterparts elsewhere, face declining advertising revenues as more readers access news online.

"[Ang's] investments and business expertise will boost the Inquirer group's value and performance in newspaper publication, internet communications, social media, corporate skills training, radio broadcasting and logistics delivery," group Chairwoman Marixi Rufino-Prieto was quoted by the Inquirer as saying.

Ang, which has a net worth of $1.4 billion according to Forbes, has had his eye on media assets in recent years. In 2015, he attempted but failed to invest in GMA Network, a major broadcaster.

The sale of the Philippine Daily Inquirer is but the latest example of a major newspaper winding up in the hands of a tycoon with diverse business interests. The Belmonte family, a political clan, in 2015 sold its majority stake in the Philippine Star broadsheet to the group of Manuel Pangilinan, a rival of Ang.

Pangilinan, the chairman of telecom giant PLDT and infrastructure company Metro Pacific Investments, also owns around 15% of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Like Pangilinan's firms, Ang's San Miguel also runs public utilities and has contracts with the government.

Jeremaiah Opiniano, former head of the University of Santo Tomas journalism program, sees the Inquirer sale as a "test" for the Fourth Estate.

"The independence of journalists as true watchdogs will be put to a test," he said. "With Ang being a campaign donor to Duterte, a chilling effect is perhaps forthcoming."

Last year, Duterte said Ang supported his campaign, though Ang's name was not on the official list of campaign backers submitted to the election commission. Duterte said he and Ang "became fast friends."

The sale of the Philippine Daily Inquirer is reminiscent of the case of The Manila Times. Back in 1999, the Gokongwei family -- owners of conglomerate JG Summit Holdings -- sold that paper after former President Joseph Estrada slapped them with a libel case.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer was also harassed by Estrada, who ordered advertisers to boycott the paper. The Inquirer stood by its critical reporting at the time, and Estrada was later impeached and ousted by a civilian uprising.

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