I can’t recall how many times the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper owned by the Rufino-Prieto family, portrayed Ferdinand Marcos as a thief. Then, this week, the government of President Rodrigo Duterte finally evicted the Inquirer’s owners from a prime piece of government property that the family had held on to and benefited greatly from for 35 years, long after it had been asked to leave.
The bid to reclaim the pricey Mile Long property, which was developed and controlled by Rufino-Prieto property company Sunvar Realty, ended almost 15 years after the government said it no longer wanted to renew the sub-lease agreement between Sunvar and Philippine Development Alternative Foundation. PDAF had leased the land along Amorsolo Street from the owner, the National Power Corp., until 2002, or at the end of 25 years, which coincided with the termination of the sub-lease agreement between Sunvar and PDAF.
But according to Solicitor General Jose Calida, who has been pursuing the case almost since the start of the Duterte administration, Sunvar tried every legal trick in the book to fight eviction from Mile Long. Along the way, Calida said, Sunvar accumulated back rentals of more than P1.6 billion, excluding interest.
“When you speak against the government of President Duterte, it’s like you are immaculately clean,” Calida said. “You have used your newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, to shield your shenanigans [when] in truth, you guys are like the Kadamay squatters… depriving the government of money that could have been used to fund projects for the poor.”
It was in 2009 when the government filed a suit against Sunvar, which claimed that the state should renew its sub-lease for another 25 years. A Makati metropolitan trial court ruled in favor of the government nearly six years later, but the case was soon elevated to the Court of Appeals.
By the time the Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s ruling in favor of the government, it was already 2016. Sunvar’s lawyers were able to secure a temporary restraining order from another Makati judge, a ruling which once again had to be thrown out by the appellate court for lack of jurisdiction.
That development paved the way for the issuance by Calida’s office of an eviction notice on Sunvar this week, which was personally served by the solicitor general on the realty company and all its tenants in the mixed-used property. The family’s lawyers said it would no longer contest its eviction and merely needed more time to allow its tenants to pack their things.
“Instead of abiding by the [original lower court] decision by vacating the property and paying [back rentals], Sunvar filed one prohibited pleading after another to stop the government from implementing the decision,” Calida explained. “Sunvar did not even file a… bond and deposit the accruing rentals every month as required by the Rules of Court to stay the execution [of an ejectment order] pending appeal.”
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Meanwhile, ahead of their eviction from Mile Long, the Rufino-Prieto family, in a surprise move, announced that it was selling the Inquirer to Ramon Ang, president of San Miguel Corp., the country’s biggest diversified conglomerate. The sellout followed intense criticism by Duterte of the newspaper for its alleged bias against his administration.
Yet another Rufino-Prieto family asset, Golden Donuts Inc, exclusive franchisee of Dunkin’ Donuts, has also been under siege. In April this year, the Bureau of Internal Revenue said it was reviewing the reported unpaid liabilities of GDI, after Duterte also accused the company of not paying taxes during the Aquino administration, whose BIR commissioner, Kim Henares, had been accused of “protecting” the family.
While there has been no word lately on the GDI tax case, Duterte has reinstated Othello Dalanon, the BIR examiner who first accused the donut-maker of not paying P1.5 billion in taxes and who resigned during the previous administration. By all indications, the GDI case is by no means closed.
The acclaimed investigative journalist and pundit Rigoberto Tiglao, writing in the Manila Times last April 19, noted that it was “[o]nly Duterte [who] seems to have the balls… to talk against [Inquirer’s owner].” He added that the GDI case “gives us a vivid demonstration of the paper’s awesome power and that of the press in general – which isn’t at all good for the country.”
It seems that the Rufino-Prieto family, which survived an advertising boycott called by then-President Joseph Estrada (who was removed from office in a civilian-backed military uprising in 2001 that had Inquirer’s support), has met its match in Duterte. The abrupt sale of the Inquirer to SMC’s Ang and the surrender of the Mile Long property cannot be taken as unrelated events: the Rufino-Prietos are cutting their losses and abandoning the newspaper business, which has clearly helped them grow their other enterprises that rely on government contracts.
There will be few like Tiglao who will dare to write about these goings-on, mainly because it is considered taboo in the newspaper game to criticize the competition, out of fear of retaliation. But it has to be pointed out that, under Duterte, the cozy and profitable relationship between oligarchs running media enterprises and bullied government agencies appears to be finally ending.