Asia uncovered


MANILA – The Philippines had just come out of two decades of the Marcos dictatorship when the 1986 pro-democracy movement erupted on the streets. But the euphoria of democracy soon gave way to disillusionment, the hard-won, fragile freedoms were threatened frequently by military coups.

Frustrated with the ownership and control of the mainstream press, a group of intrepid and idealistic women journalists got together and set up the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalists (PCIJ). They got a good Samaritan to pay their rent, borrowed furniture and started work without even an office phone.

PCIJ has come a long way in the last 25 years. Its reporters have been detectives doing gutsy investigative stories to probe corruption, digging dirt on the ill-gotten assets of presidents and officials. One of its stories led to the resignation of President Joseph Estrada, a scandal that is called the ‘Philippines’ Watergate’. And if that was Watergate, then the Filipino Woodward and Bernstein rolled into one was PCIJ’s founding director, Sheila Coronel.

Now Dean of Academic Affairs at Columbia University School of Journalism, Coronel is a legend in the Philippines, someone who showed through painstaking muck-raking reportages that it is possible to “speak truth to power”, as she put it in a keynote speech here this week at the ‘Uncovering Asia’ Investigative Journalism Conference hosted by PCIJ.

The conference hoped to replicate some of its techniques and methods in other countries in Asia. More than 300 journalists from 33 countries attended, with large contingents from India and China.

“Back in 1989, the term investigative reporting was little known in Asia,” Coronel told me, “the media landscape was dominated by pliant newspapers, insipid TV news programs and journalists who saw themselves as mouthpieces of government.”

Coronel worked for The Manila Chronicle where she was given the Malacanang beat to cover the presidential palace, and became increasingly dissatisfied with the superficiality of news. It was one-dimensional reporting about what the president said. If the president didn’t say anything there was no news.

The first duty of journalism is to protect the citizen’s right to know. The trouble is, there are vested interest groups that want to hide from the public the most vital pieces of information. Democracy is sustained by a free press that plays an adversarial role and has the ability to uncover information in the public interest that those in power want to hide.

At a time when government controls or over-commercialisation of media has reduced the credibility and power of journalists across Asia, investigative journalism is needed more than ever before. But for David E. Kaplan of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) the co-sponsor of the Manila meeting, it seemed at first to be a daunting task to bring the disparate countries and systems of the vast continent in one conference.

“The fact that we could pull this off meant that we are on the right side of history,” Kaplan said, “this is proof that rulers cannot keep doing what they want because journalists are watching.”

The Uncovering Asia conference also recognised the work already done by investigative journalists, including in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Korea, Thailand, Japan and Indonesia. Concentration of media ownership and the media’s commercialisation has made many publishers and editors averse to rocking the boat for fear of treading on the toes of government or big business, and so investigative journalism centres have to step in to help support in-depth stories.

Even in countries with vastly different systems of government like India and China, journalists today face similar challenges in doing investigative journalism. One because of government controls, and other because of over-commercialisation. The biggest disappointment has been in India, participants heard, where despite a long tradition of democracy and free press some newspapers and tv stations are crossing the line by selling news content. “The largest newspapers in India are guilty of unethical practices, news is now for sale,” said Sashi Kumar of the Chennai-based Asian College of Journalism, adding that tv viewers in India are suffering “scam fatigue” as channels broadcast sensational and selective “dig here, not there” reports.

In Pakistan, investigative journalist Umar Cheema’s story on tax-evading parliamentarians prompted the government to get MPs to make their tax records public, the only country outside the Nordic states where this is done. In Nepal, investigative reporters have gone undercover to expose corruption in the Supreme Court and ambulance drivers soliciting kickbacks from hospitals.

However, there are some media companies like Asahi Shimbun in Japan which set up an in-house investigative team to do its own in-depth stories. “Investigative journalism actually helped revive our paper at a time when circulation and credibility were going down,” said Tomohisa Yamaguchi of the Asahi Shimbun’s Investigative Reporting Section which exposed government cover-up of the 2012 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Moderating a session on the future of investigative journalism in the region, Kunda Dixit (who is the editor of this paper and chair of the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal) highlighted the role of social media to bypass controls and provide an alternative outlet to a squeamish mainstream press.

Citizen journalists, unbound by advertising pressure, are covering inconvenient truths through digital media outlets. But technology is just a tool, in the end reporters need the passion and commitment to be agents of reform. Without this motivation for public service, journalists remain just cogs in the wheel of the commercial media industry.

The job of journalists is still to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Sheila Coronel sums it up: “Reporters need to be muckrakers, woodpeckers, watchdogs, and pebbles in the shoes of the powerful.”

Nepali Times, 28 November-4 December, 2014

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