Rulers’ plunder – easier to expose but risks are higher

Community News & Features Apr 4, 2014 at 1:55 pm
Multi-awarded investigative journalist speaks on ‘Watchdog Reporting on the 21st Century: The Philippines and Beyond’  (PHOTO: JONATHAN CANCHELA)

Multi-awarded investigative journalist speaks on ‘Watchdog Reporting on the 21st Century: The Philippines and Beyond’ (PHOTO: JONATHAN CANCHELA)

Sheila Coronel, Director, Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Columbia University:

By Mila Astorga-Garcia

TORONTO –The speaker herself, by virtue of her name and stature in journalism, was a sure crowd-drawer. So when the Philippine Press Club Ontario (PPCO) held its 4th public forum on journalism last Tuesday, May 18, at OISE’s 12th Floor Lounge, with her as the guest speaker, it was no surprise that a seriously interested audience easily filled the room during that weekday evening, eager to listen. Present in that university venue were not only faculty, students, and members of the media, but community leaders, community advocates, authors, literary writers, a Philippine government representative, and the head of the national ethnic press council.

Coronel receives Certificate of Appreciation and Certificate of Honorary Membership from PPCO.  From left: PPCO President Hermie Garcia, VP Rose Tijam, Dr. Roland Coloma, Coronel and Consul General Junever Mahilum-West.

Coronel receives Certificate of Appreciation and Certificate of Honorary Membership from PPCO. From left: PPCO President Hermie Garcia, VP Rose Tijam, Dr. Roland Coloma, Coronel and Consul General Junever Mahilum-West.

Sheila S. Coronel, director, Toni Stabile Centre for Investigative Journalism, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York and newly appointed Dean for Academic Affairs for the same Graduate School of Journalism effective this July, captivated her admiring audience with her enlightening and interesting presentation, titled: “Watchdog Reporting in the 21st Century: The Philippines and Beyond”delivered in a relaxed, conversationally engaging and interactive style.

A co-founder and former Executive Director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), Coronel talked about how journalism and investigative reporting have changed so much since the time she had worked in an underground newspaper during the latter part of the Marcos regime in the Philippines: when the mimeographed copies were “hand-made and hand-distributed” to inform people about what was happening, as newspapers, television and radio had been shut down. She compared that time to the present era of the Internet and social media, where one can now easily publish and disseminate news to inform and even mobilize people into action.

She cited the experience of other nations where the excesses of kings and dictators, and the profligate lifestyle of their wives, were exposed through collaborative and collective investigation using information shared online, using tools like Google maps and Google Earth.
She said in the Philippines, during the People Power uprising in 1986, stacks of documents turned out to be evidence of Marcos’s wealth hidden in Swiss banks, but it was an appointed commission that did the tracking of the information in a more exclusive way. In a more recent case in Kiev, where volunteers found 200 folders of documents of similar significance, they were able to upload them online, thus allowing for a more inclusive participation of all stakeholders in collaborative and collective investigation.

Coronel fascinated her audience with other interesting cases of how activist journalists, volunteers, and citizen reporters did their share of unearthing what otherwise would have remained private secrets, using various tools, from Google Earth, Youtube and others.

For example in Tunisia, an activist journalist was able to track the route of the shopping sprees of the country’s first lady, by noting the tail number of the presidential plane through its trips to Paris, Geneva and other cities, and sharing the information on Youtube.

In Burma, journalists were able to discover a secret palace of the dictator which was photographed and uploaded on Youtube, and even made more interesting with Burmese rap music in the background.

In Bahrain, the Google map showed the enormity of the King’s palace which occupied a massive chunk of land area, compared to the total size of the town.

Coronel also revealed that a lot of government records are now being made public, with over 100 countries now requiring officials to declare their assets. Coronel said that by merely using Intenet tools, one can have access to them, and analyze them and do one’s own investigation.

In this era of the Internet and digital information, journalists have acquired a “new freedom, new platform, new ways of presenting information and new ways of reaching out to audiences, new ways of getting audiences engaged, new sources of information, and new ways of crunching and analyzing” data and information, says Coronel. “This,” she says, “is the new media landscape for investigative journalism.”
“Following the asset trail has never been easier,” she says. One can easily keep track of Vladimir Putin’s expensive watches, which the Russian president has a penchant for, at which point she shows onscreen the $60,000 watch he was wearing on one occasion.

However, there is a downside to the use of technology for information, Coronel emphasizes. Mexican journalists have been murdered for their investigative efforts to track the drug trade. In the Philippines, Coronel specifically cited the case of her journalist friend and colleague, Marlene Esperat, who was shot pointblank by two men who walked into her house in 2004, after she exposed the corruption of officials in the Department of Agriculture in Mindanao.

Coronel also emphasized “the need for heightened awareness of how we are being tracked digitally.”

After Coronel’s presentation, several in the audience raised interesting questions.

A challenging question came from journalist Willie Jose about how journalists deal with the frustration of seeing that, despite all the investigative reporting that leads to the fall of corrupt leaders, these people still manage to come back, or some other corrupt leaders simply take over.

Coronel’s response: “We expose the crooks, then we get the more sophisticated crooks. Corruption is very resilient, creative… There is still the psychic thrill of exposing a crook. It is frustrating if your children will still be marching in the streets, but it’s better than being defeated.”

Coronel’s public forum was initiated by PPCO president Hermie Garcia, a long-time colleague of the speaker from journalist days in the Philippines. Officially sponsored by the PPCO, the forum was co-sponsored by Dr. David Chu Program in Asia Pacific Studies, Asian Institute, Munk School on Global Affairs; Arts, Culture & Media, University of Toronto, Scarborough; and the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), University of Toronto.

The forum is the fourth of the series of speakers on journalism organized by the PPCO, according to its president, Hermie Garcia.
Since before the middle of last year, the present PPCO leadership started a series originally called Filipinos in the Mainstream Media in Canada, and the three events included:

Dyan Ruiz and Joseph Smooke of People Power Media that filed broadcasts to Toronto mainstream media about grassroots issues in the city and also filed reports about the 2010 Philippine elections, the human rights situation and mining.

Kris Reyes, a writer, producer, a news anchor and veteran reporter of Global News Toronto who is now one of the hosts of The Morning Show. She talked about her journey from a new journalism graduate to one of the mainstays in the Canadian broadcast industry.

Marivel Taruc, a veteran broadcast journalist who is now the host of the show Our Toronto aired by CBC on Saturday, Sunday and Monday mornings. She’s a reporter with CBC News and you see her on the daily CBC news broadcasts. Formerly, she was the business anchor for CBC News. At the PPCO forum, she talked about how she started as a struggling newbie reporter in Winnipeg and rose to become a familiar face on Canadian broadcast news industry.

In February, PPCO had as guest in a lunch reception, the 2013 Marshall McLuhan Fellow Eileen Mangubat, the publisher and editor of Cebu Daily News. She talked about journalism in the era of natural disasters and her 30 years of experience as a journalist in the Philippines.
Among the audience during the latest forum with Coronel were Philippine Consul General Junever Mahilum-West; Thomas S. Saras, President and CEO of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada (NEPMCC); Jeffrey A. Dvorkin, Lecturer and Program Director, Journalism, of the Art, Culure & Media, University of Toronto, Scarborough; Dr. Roland Sintos Coloma, Associate Chair, Department of Humanities, Social Science and Social Justice Education, OISE, University of Toronto; and Terrence Fay, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.