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."