A Conversation with Veteran Filipino Investigative Journalist Sheila Coronel
May 28, 2014
Anna Bantug-Herrera, The Asia Foundation’s associate director in Washington, D.C., recently spoke with former Foundation grantee, Sheila Coronel, veteran investigative journalist, new Dean of Academic Affairs of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York, and co-founder and former director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.
As an accomplished journalist, looking back, what do you consider the highlight or most remarkable moment in your career?
I began my reporting career in 1982 and in 1989 I co-founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). The PCIJ trains journalists in investigative skills, and has helped build a conducive environment for in-depth, groundbreaking reporting. One of the most important stories I worked on when I was the director of the PCIJ was the expose on the corruption of then Philippine president Estrada. That was not an easy thing to do. Originally the newspapers that we sold the stories to refused to publish it. It was a challenge to document the corruption, but eventually the stories got traction. We kept digging and working on it. Our stories made a dramatic impact and contributed to the impeachment and ouster of Estrada. Some of the findings of our investigative reports were later used in Estrada’s impeachment trial. (Editor’s note: After wide allegations of corruption, Estrada was the first Philippine president to be impeached and jailed in 2001.)
In your view, what are the biggest challenges and opportunities that the future holds for the Philippines?
There are many opportunities for the Philippines. It has a vibrant economy, a young population, a dynamic and strong civil society, and a free press. However, it also has a range of problems. We are a democracy but electoral politics is still controlled by a few hundred families. Corruption remains deeply entrenched. Poverty is intractable and there haven’t been great strides in terms of addressing poverty and the deterioration of public services.
As a former grantee of The Asia Foundation, what are your recollections about the experience and how did it help to shape your career?
The Asia Foundation was the first group to fund the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. When we set up PCIJ in 1989 – just three years after former President Marcos’ ouster and the People Power Revolution – the concept of investigative journalism and providing support to do journalism was really new. Now there’s a lot of support for investigative journalism. At that time, there was only one other center of nonprofit journalism, which was in San Francisco. So we were the first one. And the Foundation took a risk with us.
Without that initial grant from the Foundation, we wouldn’t have been able to take off. There were many uncertainties – the work we were doing was very risky, there were no models of this in the developing world, and we were young journalists, not yet established. But the Foundation gambled on us – and enabled PCIJ to investigate and report on major social issues including the military, poverty, and corruption. Eventually PCIJ became the premier investigative reporting institution in the Philippines and Asia.
The Foundation’s support helped to make nonprofit reporting viable. It proved that you could do investigative reporting in the Philippines, where there was no tradition of investigative reporting. With this seed funding, we were able to produce investigative reports that made an impact, get them widely published, and grab the attention of the media and the public. The Asia Foundation helped us establish “proof of concept.” And with this success, we were able approach other funders.
Based on your leadership experience, what advice would you give young leaders in the Philippines today?
There are so many opportunities to do work that contributes to making our society better. Whether you are in business or education, there’s so much to do and the need is great. There are so many opportunities to do innovative work. It’s a very exciting time to be able to do work that has an impact. You can be reformers within institutions and you can also set up new institutions. Today the barriers to setting up new organizations are not as great as they used to be. You see a lot of creativity and opportunity now. People are hungry for solutions and willing to invest in experiments that bring about social change.
On its 60th anniversary, what role might the Foundation play to best support your country’s progress going forward?
The Foundation has helped strengthen democratic institutions and one such institution is that of the free press. Certainly it has helped there. It has also helped with the peace process and to bring to light issues that impede development, public services, and governance. The Philippines continues to make progress in these areas, but still needs assistance so perhaps this is where the Foundation can play a greater role. The Freedom of Information Law is still being debated and perhaps the Foundation might play a role in encouraging the adoption of more open and transparent processes and regulations.
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