The courage of Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc

Glenda M. Gloria
Presidents, paramours, politicians, public figures – Letty loved them as any no-nonsense journalist would: she loved giving them their reality check

CHALLENGING POWER. Inquirer's longtime editor, the late Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc. Photo courtesy of Ruben Napales

It’s often said that when one dies, one is remembered for how she touched lives or said the kindest of words. I’d like to think that the best editors, when they die, are best remembered for the judgment calls they made in the roughest of times.

Much has been said and will be said about Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc. But one thing cuts across generations that she has worked with as a journalist: she’s got balls, and boy how she showed them when the times called for it.

When challenging power and exposing its warts, nothing is taboo for her, such as a romantic affair, for instance, involving a president and an ex-paramour.

In 1992, soon after Fidel Ramos became president, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) was tipped off about the influence-peddling activities of Rose Marie “Baby” Arenas, said to be Ramos’ former girlfriend and one of his top campaign contributors. Marites Dañguilan-Vitug and I pursued that story for PCIJ.

Was it worth investigating? When does one draw the line between the personal and the official? When does a private person become fair game to the media? The answer to weeks of PCIJ discussions was basic: once it impinges on state affairs and public interest, a private affair is – and ought to be – open to media scrutiny.

Letty didn’t think twice. She ran our two-part series on Baby Arenas and her backdoor attempts to put friends in government and push for certain contracts. Never mind that it was only barely a month after Ramos had taken his oath as president. Never mind that various interest groups tried to talk her out of lending precious newspaper space to “gossip.” Never mind that the new president was expecting some sort of a honeymoon with the press.

The establishment unleashed its fury after. A swarm of columns, including from Inquirer opinion-makers themselves, dismissed the series as chismis, ridiculed “this type” of investigative reporting, and chided the Inquirer for dignifying it.

Letty took it all. And slept well.

The Ramos administration, after all, would not be her problem.

Erap and the Inquirer

It was another president that gave Inquirer hell: Joseph “Erap” Estrada.

In 1999, when the Inquirer published its exposés against Estrada without let-up, his friends in the entertainment industry tried to punish the paper by pulling out all their movie ads.  The advertising boycott soon expanded to other businesses scared of Estrada. The boycott was accompanied, too, by veiled threats from the country’s most powerful man.

When Inquirer ran a PCIJ exposé that Estrada had acquired P1 billion worth of real estate, the president fumed and told reporters, “Ipa-i-imbestiga ko sila (I will have them investigated).”

With Letty and Sandy Prieto-Romualdez standing their ground, the country’s biggest newspaper would not bend its knees to power. Estrada was ousted a year later.

No to holidays

Presidents, paramours, politicians, public figures – Letty loved them as any no-nonsense journalist would: she loved giving them their reality check. Not even the holidays would make her take a break from this (I thought about this when she made us all scramble for information after her sudden death on Christmas Eve).

The last time I got a call from Letty was on New Year’s Eve in 2011.

I was on the road when I heard the familiar husky voice. Letty wanted Rappler’s permission for Inquirer to run Rappler’s exclusive on the questionable doctorate degree that then Chief Justice Renato Corona had obtained from the University of Santo Tomas (UST), which we published on December 22, 2011.  

Rappler had not fully launched at the time, but we had been publishing stories, particularly on Corona who was about to face trial in an impeachment court. We readily agreed to Letty’s request, but I was not prepared for what I saw on January 1, 2012, in the Inquirer’s hard copy.

The Rappler story, written by Marites Dañguilan-Vitug, screamed as the Inquirer’s banner that day – ruining the New Year of both the chief justice and UST.

In reply to the Inquirer, UST not only denied the allegations; it also justified its initial refusal to respond to Vitug’s questions when she was investigating the case. “Does anyone claiming to be an online journalist be given the same attention as one coming from the mainstream press?” said the UST statement carried by the Inquirer the following day. “We understand that while Miss Vitug used to be a print journalist, she’s part of an online magazine, Newsbreak, which has reportedly been subsumed into ‘www.rappler.com.’ What’s that?”

The rest, of course, is history.

Thank you, Letty. – Rappler.com