Did President Joseph Estrada tag veteran actress and movie producer Armida Siguion-Reyna as the brains behind the 1999 advertising boycott against the Philippine Daily Inquirer (PDI) to shield himself from public backlash?
In his biography of Siguion-Reyna, 84, published by ABS-CBN Publishing, journalist Nelson Navarro is making such a suggestion.
Titled “Armida: Unfinished Memoir—The Singer and the Song,” the book claims that contrary to Estrada’s disclosure, Armida actually stood as the lone voice in the wilderness that objected to the idea in a meeting held that July in Malacañang.
At that time, Estrada was peeved at the Inquirer for coming out with unfavorable stories about his mistresses and the mansions he was building for them then.
Estrada, now the mayor of Manila, was also sore at stories about his “midnight cabinet” composed of shady characters shaping his public policy.
Navarro, who also edited the self-titled autobiography of Armida’s elder brother Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile released in 2012, recalled that Estrada summoned top movie producers for dinner in Malacañang on July 9, 1999.
Among the invited were lawyer Experidion Laxa, head of the producers’ group, along with Marichu Maceda, Vic del Rosario, Lily Monteverde and several others. Armida, was there as chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB).
The book says that Estrada wailed about the “persecution” and “dirty job” the Inquirer was allegedly waging against him and wanted those present to help him retaliate.
“Somebody proposed an advertising boycott, which quickly won support among the producers present. Others said it was Estrada himself who proposed the harsh action, believing it would compel the paper, like the Manila Times, to back down or at least scale down its attacks on the administration,” Navarro writes.
It would be recalled that in May that year, businessman John Gokongwei was forced to sell the Manila Times to Estrada crony Mark Jimenez after the President filed a P101 million libel suit against the newspaper.
The case stemmed from a story alleging Estrada’s involvement in a bribery case concerning a $450 million power plant contract. Gokongwei apologized but the Times’ entire news desk, save for its editor-in-chief, resigned.
However, it was the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s imposition of a P2 billion tax assessment on the family’s corporations that moved the Times’ owner to sell it.
Navarro writes that Armida’s son Carlitos Siguion-Reyna noted that his mother was “distressed” by Estrada’s ad boycott proposal against Inquirer.
“Isn’t that prior restraint, Mr. President?” Armida reportedly asked during the meeting.
Navarro writes that Estrada dismissed her query, saying advertisers would be the one to execute the boycott, not the government.
“All the producers agreed with him and the decision was sealed before any further questions could be asked,” the book says.
Carlitos is quoted in the book as complaining that the incident “would cast an unfair shadow on Armida as a public servant and one dedicated to free expression all her life.”
It would be recalled that Armida, who is vocal about her defense of artistic liberties in Philippine cinema, famously engaged in tussles with Manuel Morato and Henrietta Mendez, her predecessors at the MTRCB, over movies that were deemed too lascivious for public consumption.
Armida, however, would best be remembered for her musical series “Aawitan Kita,” a groundbreaking television show that ran for 34 years and bridged the kundiman with the emerging trend of Original Pilipino Music (OPM).
Navarro’s book says word eventually spread that Armida was behind the ad boycott.
“She was asked pointblank by a PDI reporter, to whom she said ‘Why would I do that?’ The reporter took her word and nothing more was said about it.”
Estrada was eventually impeached, kicked out of office in a popular revolution, and convicted of plunder. But after his successor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo gave him a presidential pardon, Estrada was asked anew about the ad boycott eight years earlier.
“This time he was explicit: it was Armida’s idea to boycott Inquirer,” Navarro said.
Son Carlitos told the author he was “taken aback” after reading Estrada’s interview on Inquirer’s front page.
“I found it strange that Estrada would throw my mother under the bus. He took advantage of the fact that she looks at him as a friend,” he complained.
Carlitos and wife Bibeth reportedly insisted to Armida that she should give her side of the story, but she refused.
“She just wished it away. She was 77 and tired of all the wrangling. She did not want to reopen old wounds and cast her friend in a bad light all over again. Fortunately, PDI did not press the point and the sordid incident passed into history,” Navarro writes.
The author however notes that Estrada’s flippant call for an ad boycott brought the newspaper to the “brink and ruin of bankruptcy” but Inquirer’s owners fought back with a march in Makati that brought together 20,000 protestors denouncing corruption and the suppression of press freedom.
The event was an eye-opener for the President and after a frank discussion with Inquirer owners and editors, advertisers who joined the boycott immediately called the newspaper to renew their ad orders.
Within a year, the House of Representatives had impeached Estrada for plunder and grave abuse of discretion. Not long after, he left Malacañang after people gathered in Edsa to express their displeasure over his leadership. Many of his Cabinet leaders, appointed officials, the military and the police hierarchy soon joined the people and he vacated Malacañang.
The book says Armida was one of the “very few top officials who stood by their embattled president through thick and thin in the following years of imprisonment and oblivion.”
“On the day Erap (Estrada’s nickname) fell, Armida packed her papers and personal belongings at MTRCB and headed home to North Forbes Park,” Navarro writes.
Note: “Armida: Unfinished Memoir,” written by Nelson Navarro and edited by Teodoro Locsin Jr., will be launched on Feb. 24, 5 p.m., at Whitespace, Makati City.