Thursday, December 06, 2007

Alexander Martin Remollino

(Delivered at “An Eye for I: The State and Practice of Investigative Reporting in the Philippines,” a forum organized by the UP Department of Journalism and the UP Communicators for Good Governance and held Dec. 5, 2007 at the College of Mass Communications Auditorium, University of the Philippines)

How best describe the state and practice of investigative journalism in the Philippines?

This is a question for which there are no easy and clear answers. It is a lot easier to try to answer the question of where those who disappear in the Bermuda Triangle end up, or of what happened before the Big Bang.

This is because the very mention of the term “investigative journalism” summons a whole wealth of other thoughts or observations.

First things first: just what in the world is investigative journalism?

The Collin-COBUILD Dictionary of the English Language defines investigation thus: “If you investigate an event or situation, you examine all the details, in order to find out what has happened or is happening.”

This is certainly the method which anyone who can be called an investigative journalist uses to come up with those in-depth reports that are characteristic of the branch of journalism they chose to specialize in.

But with that, should not all journalism, in thrust if not in methodology, be investigative — since the task of any journalist at any time and place is to ferret out and expose the truth about what is happening in the world, that people may be accordingly guided to respond to the challenges of the times? The existence anywhere of a journalistic category described as “investigative” (as distinct from the other branches of journalism) thus sheds light not only on the state of investigative journalism, but on the state of journalism itself.

Jaime B. Ramirez, author of the Philippine Journalism Handbook among other works, defines investigative reporting as “the disclosure of information that is of public value where the subjects would prefer not to be disclosed.” He further observes that

Every reporter should be an investigative reporter — by his or her own instincts and by leave of the publisher. If a reporter is on the trail of a good story, the necessary time should be made available. A serious commitment to investigative reporting is one of the best investments a publisher can make. This will surely and simultaneously benefit a newspaper’s prestige and its readers’ interest as well…

With that, how fares investigative journalism in the Philippines, and how has it been practiced here thus far?

The reports of the PCIJ do not always get to be published in all of the major periodicals. On the small screen, investigative programs like I-Witness, Reporter’s Notebook, and The Correspondents are usually shown in the most ungodly hours, when for the most part the nation is in such deep sleep that a comet could pass by largely unnoticed.

And yet investigative reports always have considerable impact in the country’s public discourse. Though not everyone gets to read investigative articles or view episodes of investigative programs, the revelations made and the questions raised by these get talked about for days — sometimes weeks — on end.

Take for instance the ruckus provoked by PCIJ’s exposes on former President Joseph Estrada’s “Boracay Mansions,” or Bernadette Sembrano’s report on Pagcor chief Ephraim Genuino’s unexplained assets.

The same goes for other publications or outlets in the Philippines that have been identified as placing emphasis on investigative journalism — like Newsbreak or, I could say, the publication I write for — the online magazine Bulatlat.

That investigative journalism exerts such impact on the Philippines, even with its limited exposure here, takes us to one of the glaring characteristics of what poet and literary scholar Gelacio Guillermo has called “our basket case of a society”: that this is a society with a whole universe of secrets waiting — nay, clamoring — to be revealed. It is a society where there are a few who wield vast power — both in the public sphere and in the private sector — who use this power to perpetrate excesses and with the resources at their command strive mightily to keep these from the knowledge of the people.

In any such society, there will always be a considerable portion of the reading and viewing public eager to read or view in-depth reports on the latest scams and scandals, and an even bigger public discussing the contents of these with prolonged interest.

Former UP Mass Communication Dean Luis V. Teodoro describes thus the importance of investigative journalism in the Philippines:

The investigative report is the most logical form for the need to demonstrate and document in all its painstaking detail and sordidness the political and social realities that still define Filipino existence today, towards the historic end of arming the people with the consciousness that will mobilize them. It is also the one form that can repudiate the martial law legacy of secrecy that still haunts us all. Of all the journalistic forms it is the investigative report — with its demand for consummate research and precise attribution — that lends itself to the deepening of public understanding of the way the political, economic and social systems work for the benefit of a handful and to the detriment of the many.

Thus far, the practice of investigative journalism in the Philippines has for the most part limited itself to exposing the scams involving government officials. Because of this, investigative journalism has come to be commonly understood in the Philippines as that branch of journalism that uncovers corruption and other government scams, and seeks to make government accountable to the public.

The Philippine journalistic landscape is thus not wanting in investigative reports on such topics as the fate of the sequestered Marcos billions, or of Corazon Aquino’s so-called “Kamag-anak, Inc.,” or of the anomalous infrastructure projects during the Ramos administration, or of Estrada’s involvement in illegal gambling, or the numerous onerous contracts entered into by the Arroyo regime.

To be sure, corruption is not the only issue for which high government officials should be held accountable to the people.

The nefarious dealings that the Philippine government goes into with its former colonial and now neocolonial string-puller, the U.S., also deserve to be pried into by the investigative journalist.

How complicit, for instance, was the Arroyo administration in the influence-peddling of the U.S.-based and USAID-funded lobby group AGILE (Accelerating Growth, Investment and Liberalization with Equity) on Philippine policy-makers in 2003?

Or where in hell now is L/Cpl. Daniel Smith, who was convicted last year of raping “Nicole” two years ago? Is he still in the custody of the U.S. Embassy in Manila, as Amb. Kristie Kenney claims, or has he been spirited out of the country like many a U.S. serviceman who committed similarly heinous crimes against Filipinos in the heyday of Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base?

While at that, is it true that the U.S. presently maintains secret basing facilities in Subic, Angeles City, Mactan City, and General Santos City — even with constitutional provisions expressly prohibiting foreign military presence on Philippine soil?

These deserve to be looked into, as does government policy on recognizing — or the refusal to recognize — human rights, which are protected by no less than the Constitution and the various international instruments which the government is constitutionally bound to recognize as “part of the law of the land.”

Beyond that, there are not so many investigative reports, for instance, on the 2001 allegations that the owners of what is now the Power Plant Mall at Rockwell Center buried toxic waste from what was a real power plant under land forming part of Brgy. San Joaquin, Pasig City.

I also do not remember seeing any investigative report on the allegations a few years back that then Labor Secretary Patricia Sto. Tomas went on an all expense-paid trip to Nestle’s main office in Geneva, Switzerland at the height of the strike by the unionized workers of its branch in Cabuyao, Laguna in protest against CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) violations. The trip, it is alleged, was for the purpose of striking a deal between Sto. Tomas and the company’s top-level management to ensure that the company’s local branch would be favored over the striking workers in Cabuyao.

Without passing any judgment on whether the allegations were true or not, I still say that these nevertheless deserved to be probed.

The issue of how big landholders in the country have gone around the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law of 1988 — taking advantage of its many loopholes to evade having their lands subjected to agrarian reform — is another one that has yet to be probed deeply enough by investigative journalism. Investigative reports on such a topic would be timely today, considering that the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program’s second 10-year extension ends next year.

While it is very much laudable to use investigative journalism to help in disclosing corruption and other government scandals, we must never for a moment construe this as the only task of the investigative journalist.

I cannot stress too much my premise that it is power-wielders from both the public and private sectors who typically have skeletons in the closet which investigative journalism may and should unearth.

It is not just high government officials who have those dark secrets that are crying out to be brought into the open; but also, for instance, the big bosses of corporate giants and the landed aristocracy. Investigative journalism in the Philippines has made some attempts at probing the skeletons hidden by entities other than high government, but the secrets of big business and the landed aristocracy are still uncharted territory for most Filipino investigative journalists.

The big bosses of corporate giants and the landed aristocracy, as much as high government officials, deserve to be subject to the intense scrutiny of investigative journalism — since they, like high government officials, affect to a great deal the life of the general public — who are, in the final analysis, the ultimate beneficiaries of the successes of any investigative journalist.

Any issues involving them and how they impact on the lives of the people are necessary subjects of investigative journalism. As Teodoro said:

Whether at the community or national level, all issues that touch upon the way people live are people’s issues. These issues range from the need for day care centers for working mothers to the undeclared martial law in Jolo. Whether by documenting corruption or environmental degradation, child labor or the manipulation of the stock market, the investigative report can help put an end to both the ignorance as well as the legacy of secrecy that are among the instruments that help keep Philippine society what it is for the overwhelming majority of the people — a society of vast injustice and even greater misery…

That having been said, high government, big business and the landed aristocracy are but part of a larger organism which goes by the name Philippine society.

Investigative journalism, therefore, should go beyond uncovering their dark secrets and must also probe into the dynamics of the social forces that make the power-wielders what they are, and that keep them as such. Investigative journalism, in the words of former Bulatlat executive editor Bobby Tuazon, “should be honed and advanced as a tool for social transformation,” and “(should) not confine itself to reporting about corruption and other scandals but (should delve) into the bigger, more socially-relevant issues of the poor and the oppressed.”

To summarize: Investigative journalism is needed in any society like the Philippines. It has to some extent been responsive to the social conditions that make it a necessity in this country, but its practitioners here can and would do well to do more.

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