Thursday, November 27, 2014

Uncovering Asia through investigative journalism

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

Internet detective work and digging out hidden information online. Fighting back with legal tools. Uncovering hidden assets across borders. Investigating in conflict zones. Teaching investigative journalism. Coping with trauma and threat. Despots, crooks and their wealth. Breathless in Manila.

These were among the workshop topics tackled at “Uncovering Asia: The First Asian Investigative Journalism Conference,” the recent three-day gathering of 300 journalists, mostly Asians, from 32 countries.

Hosted by the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), which is celebrating its 25th year, this conference was a groundbreaking first. The unflappable organizers, among them GIJN’s David Kaplan and PCIJ’s Malou Mangahas, were aiming for only 150 participants but ended up with 300.

Being one of the local sponsors, the Inquirer sent many reporters to attend. It was a gathering of veteran and aspiring investigative reporters, data journalists, media, law and security experts.

Sheila Coronel, PCIJ cofounder and now dean of academic affairs at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, set the tone with her keynote address, “Nine billion eyes—holding power to account in the world’s largest continent.” (It’s on the Internet.) A great opening speech, I must say.

Twenty-five years ago, Coronel told the audience, the term “investigative reporting” was little-known in Asia. “Today, journalists throughout Asia are using freedom-of-information laws, data analysis, social media, collaborative tools and the latest in digital technology. They are writing about corruption, human slavery, dirty money and environmental problems.

“Since the 1980s and ’90s, new freedoms, new technologies, new markets and new laws have empowered journalists like never before. Twenty-five years ago, Asia had one investigative reporting center. (That was PCIJ. —CPD) Today there are centers in Nepal, Korea, Pakistan, India and two in Thailand, TCIJ and Thai Publica. Investigative units in newspapers and broadcast networks are no longer a novelty. There are investigative magazines—notably Tempo in Indonesia and Caixin in China. In many countries, even in China, there are TV news programs that label themselves investigative.

“Throughout this time, we’ve been told that Asians value consensus over exposure. They’re wrong: Speaking truth to power is an Asian value.”

Coronel said that once journalists and citizens have had a taste of independence and freedom, it is hard to go back to the dark ages. She pointed out the immense changes in Asia in the past 20 years, among them toppled dictatorships and opening markets. She went on to cite Asian journalists’ bold moves—the Chinese’s, in particular—to investigate what used to be considered off-limits.

We have come a long way, indeed, but not to rest easy. At the second day’s plenary session, Kunda Dixit, founder and editor of The Nepali Times, stressed that there are many problems facing investigative journalists, among them media’s over-commercialization and owners who have skeletons in their closets.

Journalists presented challenges particular to their cultures, governments and state of freedom or unfreedom. For us Filipinos, the stalled Freedom of Information bill is still a deterrent to good investigative reporting. But despite this, Filipino journalists, intrepid and enterprising creatures that they are, are able to make stunning breakthroughs.

In the workshops, journalists learned new tools and gained insights. One interesting session that I attended was on “Internet detective” work presided over by Paul Myers, an Internet research expert who works with the BBC and runs Research Clinic, a website dedicated to helping journalists. I realized that the Internet can be both a gold mine and a minefield. While on the trail of something, you can be trailed yourself. What to do? How to find, without wasting time, the information—damning, raw, hot, even ancient?

It’s kind of labyrinthine but worth learning. I can’t wait to get back to a follow-up story I’m working on.

It helps if the investigative reporter is a damned good writer and storyteller—suspenseful but not sensationalistic, and with a colorful style especially with a blockbuster whodunit (no conference topic on this).

Filipino journalists can be proud that PCIJ was the first center to break ground in Asia. PCIJ had garage-type beginnings—borrowed office, no phone, old furniture and typewriters, a bulky computer. Thanks to supporters, PCIJ recently moved to its fully-owned, well-equipped office in time for its 25th anniversary.

Was it only yesterday? I look back to my 1989 PCIJ-funded investigative series on HIV-AIDS in the Philippines (I stayed and slept in the home of prostitutes) and, later, on clueless Filipino aspirants who were lured to Italy by Italian religious congregations with dwindling membership. These long pieces came out in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, my home base.

I am humbled to have been invited to serve in the PCIJ board for almost 10 years till 2010, and I am proud that PCIJ continues to take the lead in the field. As Coronel told the gathering,

“We are the bearers of a proud tradition. Like priests, we perform the culturally sanctioned rituals of exposure and shaming. The gods are on our side. Let no one tell us otherwise.”

A fun, loud ending we all had—with music (thanks to Noel Cabangon and brave journalists-turned-vocalists), food, wine, beer, dancing. Our impromptu closing anthem: “We are the world.”