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Manila Times Editors Quit

April 8, 1999 GMT

MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ The top editors of one of the Philippines’ oldest newspapers resigned in protest when the owners decided to apologize Thursday to the country’s president for a report that prompted his $2.6 million libel lawsuit.

President Joseph Estrada responded to the apology by saying he would drop the lawsuit he filed against The Manila Times for calling him the ``unwitting godfather″ for an allegedly improper government contract.

``I would like to extend my sincerest apologies for the anxiety you felt,″ Robina Gokongwei-Pe, president of the paper’s owner, Metromedia Times Corp., said in a letter to Estrada on the front page of Thursday’s edition.

She said the story, which ran Feb. 16, ``was never intended to malign or impugn the sterling reputation you have built up over decades of dedicated public service.″

The managing editor and the editor in chief and two or three other editors joined chief business writer Joel Gaborni, who wrote the story, in resigning late Wednesday when told of the decision to apologize. A company rule on resignations requires them to work 15 more days but their names were removed Thursday from the staff list published daily in the newspaper.

Managing editor Chit Estella quoted the owners as saying there was ``nothing really wrong with the story″ but that they feared pressure from the government on their other businesses.

The newspaper is owned by the family of tycoon John Gokongwei, whose business empire includes food manufacturing, real estate, airline operations, banking and a chain of department stores.

Estrada denied there had been any pressure.

``There’s no truth to that,″ he said. ``We cannot pressure the press. It’s the press who are pressing us.″

Estrada acted as a witness to the signing of the deal in question, a $435 million contract for the repair and enlargement of a hydroelectric plant south of Manila.

The newspaper had said the contract, between the state-run National Power Corp. and IMPSA Asia Ltd., an Argentine engineering company, was irregular because it was altered after government approval.

In his complaint, Estrada said he wanted the case to serve as an example to deter other journalists from degrading private citizens and officials ``under the guise of freedom of speech and of the press.″

Estrada, a former movie star who took office last June, is the second Philippine president to file a libel lawsuit in recent years.

Former President Corazon Aquino filed a lawsuit in 1990 against popular columnist Luis Beltran after he wrote that she ``hid under her bed″ during a 1987 coup attempt.

Mrs. Aquino, who said there was no space in which to hide under her bed, nevertheless lost the lawsuit.