Media watchdog in the Philippines

BY Frederick Noronha| IN Media Practice | 02/03/2005
The Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) is a non-profit independent media agency, specialising in investigative reporting.

Frederick Noronha

Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) is a non-profit independent media agency, specialising in investigative reporting. ?The agency was set up in 1989 by nine Filipino journalists, who realised that newspapers and broadcast agencies need to go beyond day-to-day reporting,? says Alexander ?Alecks? P Pabico, a 37-year-old online manager and training director of the Centre. He comes from Quezon City in the Philippines.

For those who do not know much about the Republic of Philippines, it is an island nation consisting of an archipelago of 7,107 islands, lying in the tropical western Pacific Ocean, about 100 kilometers southeast of mainland Asia.

Pabico, visiting India recently for a conference, is part of PCIJ network and has  trained scores of Filipino and Southeast Asian journalists, journalism educators and campus writers in the areas of investigative reporting, computer-assisted journalism and newspaper design.

?The Centre believes that the media plays a crucial role in strengthening democratic institutions. In doing so, the media should provide the citizens a basis for arriving at informed opinions and decisions,? says Pabico, who has also co-authored a book titled `The Electronic Trail: Computer-Assisted Research and Reporting in the Philippines`.

How does he see Philippines and its media morph after the Marcos dictatorship? He says, ?Institutionalizing democracy in Philippines is an ongoing work, not only for the media but also for its citizens. For the media, there is still the crucial role of demanding access to information, not only for themselves but for the public and the citizens. This would translate into greater transparency and accountability on the part of the government.?

So how does the PCIJ actually operate?

They are funded by donors. Since they don`t have their own newspaper, their investigative stories are sent to all the newspapers, and it is up to the editors of these newspapers to make use of the stories.

?Most of the time, our stories get published because we pursue a ¿different¿ public agenda, as compared to the mainstream media. In some newspapers, they don`t regularly use our stories because they have developed their own investigative reporting teams. This, in itself, is a victory for the Centre. It means we have created a culture of investigative reporting in Philippine,? says Pabico.

So what is their focus? Mainly their stories deal with corruption in the government and private institutions or business institutions.

Last year, this Centre made popular the use of `lifestyle checks` on Internal Revenue and Customs officials. Based on the statements of their assets and liabilities, the PCIJ investigated whether these declarations were true or not in terms of the houses they owned, the cars they drove, their memberships in exclusive clubs or organizations etc.

The Centre became famous for the investigations related to the ousted president Joseph `Erap` Estrada in around 2000. ?We were the first ones to expose his alleged unexplained wealth, the way he was building mansions left and right for his mistresses, and the number of companies he was involved in though the law required him to divest his interests in
these corporations,? says Pabico.

As a result of their investigations, Estrada was the first president to be impeached in Congress. Though the impeachment trial did not reach a conclusion, it resulted in the People`s Power revolt, forcing the Estrade to resign. Estrade is now under detention and his `plunder case` is being tried in court, Pabico informs.

PCIJ has a staff of 14, five of whom are journalists who regularly write reports. Pabico`s own background is unusual; he took up architecture in university. But he also dabbled in writing during his campus days, eventually becoming editor-in-chief of the University of the Philippines publication, `Philippine Collegian`.

Of the nine founders, Sheila Coronel is currently the executive director. Another is now serving with the government.

Has the PCIJ, in turn, inspired other groups? Pabico replies, ?I am not so sure, but we were founders of this new alliance, the South East Asian Press Alliance, some four years ago. It is a regional venue for journalists. Its main focus is advocating for freedom of press.?

What would he see as the main problems plaguing the Filipino press today? He says, ?There`s too much commercialism in terms of the news coverage. Reporting is dictated largely by commercial interest. The ratings-game is also reflected in the print media. They are resorting to
¿sensationalized¿ reporting.

Pabico also feels that journalists lack training and professionalism. ?And of course, there`s a problem of ethics and ethical violations or transgressions. The media is not free from corruption. This was particularly true in the last elections held in May 2004,? adds Pabico.

On its part, the PCIJ organizes three to four training programmes in a year, focusing mainly on investigative journalism. ?We also reach out to regions beyond our country, to address the training needs of local and regional journalists,? adds Pabico.

Contact: frederick@bytesforall.org

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