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MANILA, Philippines – Did Speaker Martin Romualdez give $1 million (about P56 million) to fund a new Tagalog course at Harvard University?
On Thursday, August 31, Inquirer.net, one of the Philippines’ most-read news websites, asked that question in an article based on an exclusive report by The FilAm, an online magazine based in the United States with which it has a content partnership.
The article was up for several hours and getting multiple comments from readers when it was taken down, reportedly on orders from top management. The link to the piece now directs readers to a landing page of reports by Inquirer.net’s US contributors.
A link to a cached version could still be found on Sunday morning. It now renders a 404 error.
It’s the latest in a number of instances of Philippine news sites taking down reports on the country’s powerful politicians and businessmen. The CEO of the Inquirer Group of Companies, Sandy Prieto Romualdez, is married to the Speaker’s brother, Philip.
PCIJ reached out to Inquirer and Inquirer.net on Sunday morning for comment. It has not received a response as of this writing.
The Inquirer was founded in 1985 in the wake of massive protests against the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, eventually displacing the pro-Marcos Bulletin Today as the country’s number one newspaper.
Speaker Romualdez has neither confirmed nor denied the donation, which amounts to around 10% of his declared total net worth. In 2016, the Speaker, one of the wealthiest members of Congress, reported a net worth of P475 million. In 2018, his wife, Representative Yedda Marie Romuadez, declared a net worth of around P488 million in her statement of assets. This was the last time the House of Representatives released summaries of its members’ statements of assets.
The FilAm reported the Speaker’s $1-million donation based on information from a well-placed Filipino Harvard alumnus who attended a dinner in April this year at the home of Geraldine Acuña-Sunshine, a wealthy entrepreneur of Filipino descent and a member of the Harvard board of overseers.
“Yes, the Speaker was the donor,” the alumnus, who joined other Filipino alumni and students of Harvard at the dinner, was quoted as telling the US-based online magazine. “And we were told not to share this information. I found that very suspicious. If you are doing something without any nefarious intent, then why make it so secretive?”
Ruben Carranza, former commissioner of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), told The FilAm it would be “wrong” for Harvard to accept donations from the family of the late dictator.
Romualdez is the first cousin of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator. His father, Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, had been tagged by the PCGG as the elder Marcos’ conduit for taking control of the electric company Meralco. A compromise agreement between the Meralco Foundation and the government said that Marcos, through Kokoy Romualdez, used “sinister strategies and underhanded maneuvers” to acquire the electric company’s shares from the dictator’s rivals, the Lopez family.
There are also cases against the Romualdez family in relation to their assets in mining and in newspaper publishing.
“There is obviously something wrong if it is true that Harvard accepts donations from families of dictators who are corrupt, whether for teaching Filipino or any other course,” said Carranza.
Marcos won the presidential elections in May 2022. In July of the same year, Romualdez was elected Speaker. Shortly after, a bill was filed seeking to abolish the PCGG, saying the agency has “not produced significant accomplishment [and] has outgrown its usefulness.”
In its 2021 Annual Report, the PCGG reported recovering P175 billion in Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth since it was established in 1986. The fund supported farmers and human rights victims.
As of December 2020, about P99.678-billion worth of assets were still under litigation.
Speaker Romualdez was in the United States in April for a series of engagements with his counterparts in the US Congress. He also gave an address to Harvard’s Kennedy School, saying that he hoped to help strengthen US-Philippine ties. There, he said that Harvard’s Tagalog offering was “a source of national pride.”
A Harvard spokesperson told The FilAm that it could not disclose the identity of the donor who made the Tagalog course possible, saying it does not discuss details of individual gifts. (The report may also be read on The FilAm’s website.)
The FilAm also reported that in 1981 the Philippine government tried to donate $1 million to endow an academic chair at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy to be named the Ferdinand E. Marcos Chair for East Asian and Pacific Studies.
“Marcos withdrew the funds because he was dissatisfied with his treatment by both Tufts and the US government,” the Harvard Crimson reported, citing sources at the Fletcher School.
Former Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr., the most vocal critic of the Marcos dictatorship, was a research fellow at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. In his fellowship, taken after his release from prison in 1980, he did research on the history of Philippine democracy.
In 2018, Inquirer.net took down a series of reports on the rape case of actress Pepsi Paloma following a request from then Senate President Vicente Sotto III. The reports tagged the politician in an alleged attempt to whitewash the rape case that accused his colleagues in the entertainment industry — Vic Sotto, Joey De Leon, and Ritchie d’Horsey — of raping Paloma.
In a statement after the takedown, Inquirer.net said the articles on the Pepsi Paloma case “are currently under review and are unavailable at the moment.”
In 2019, the Philippine Star website, philstar.com, also took down a 2002 article on businessman Wilfredo Keng after he informed the newspaper of the “possibility of legal action.”
Keng, once one of the country’s richest according to Forbes, was tagged in the article as the prime suspect in the ambush-killing of former Manila Councilor Chika Go. The report was cited in a 2012 Rappler article identifying Keng as the owner of the vehicle used by the late Chief Justice Renato Corona. The Rappler report became the subject of a cyber libel case against Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos.
In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Senator Francis Tolentino also reportedly asked philstar.com to remove a story about his access to rare Covid-19 test kits. His post about his negative test prompted an online uproar because many Filipinos with serious symptoms did not have access to test kits at the time.
Speaker Romualdez himself became a key player in the Philippine broadcasting industry following a joint venture agreement between ABS-CBN and his Prime Media Holdings to produce content for radio and cable television. The Romualdez family also owns the national broadsheet Manila Standard and the Journal Group of Publications (which publishes tabloids People’s Journal and People’s Tonight, among others). – Rappler.com
This story was first published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Republished with permission.