The IJAsia14 Keynote: Speaking Truth to Power Is an Asian Value

Coronel keynote

Sheila Coronel rallies investigative journalists at Uncovering Asia.

(Editor’s Note: Here’s the keynote address that left 300 journalists from 33 countries buzzing at Uncovering Asia: The First Asian Investigative Journalism Conference. The speech was delivered on November 24, 2014, in Manila, Philippines.)

Twenty-five years ago, the term “investigative reporting” was little known in Asia. The media landscape was dominated by pliant newspapers, insipid TV news programs, and journalists who saw themselves as mouthpieces of government. 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.


Liang Qichao founded the newspaper Shibao in Shanghai in 1904

We’ve come a long way. In 1989, when my colleagues and I formed the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in a borrowed office with second-hand furniture, we didn’t even have a telephone. It’s hard to imagine this now when mobile phones are so ubiquitous in Asia, but at that time, there was only one telecoms company and it was so inept, it couldn’t provide us with a phone. All we had were second-hand electric typewriters, one DOS-based computer, and a few boxes of floppy disks.

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. 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.


Presidential Palace, Manila, on the day Marcos fell, 1986.

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

In many of our countries, journalists have played an important role in bringing about the democratic transition – there was the “mosquito press” in the Philippines, which reported on the excesses of Ferdinand & Imelda Marcos; underground newspapers in Suharto-era Indonesia; exile media in the bad old days of the badly named SLORC, the acronym of the Burma’s military junta.

In Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Korea, the fall of dictatorships was followed by the promulgation of new constitutions that guaranteed a wide range of freedoms. The controls on the media were loosened, information ministries abolished, and the public demand for real news created a media boom. This was the era in which the PCIJ was born. The fall of Asian strongmen was followed by the explosion of new news organizations that queried officials, investigated malfeasance and reported events with unprecedented vigor to a public thirsty for news and information.

I still remember the early broadcasts on the first independent TV in Thailand in the 1990s: They showed grainy undercover video of truck drivers bribing policemen at checkpoints. You cannot imagine how astonishing that was – before then, Thai TV news looked like ads for Thai Airways: It was all about the monarchy, Buddhist temples and monks and all the charming news in the land of smiles.

Coronel3In Indonesia, the independent magazine Tempo was banned in 1994,for writing about the purchase by the government of overpriced East German warships. Suharto was enraged that the controversy was made public and so the information ministry revoked the licenses of Tempo and two other magazines.
Tempo was revived after Suharto’s fall. Over the years, it has taken on corrupt politicians, fat-cat businessmen and also the military and the police, which are among the most entrenched and powerful institutions in Indonesia. They have reported on the military’s complicity in murders and human rights abuses.

Through documents and whistleblower testimony, Tempo journalist Metta Dharmasaputra exposed how Sukanto Tanoto, Indonesia’s richest man, had evaded payment of $115 million in taxes. In the course of his investigation, Metta’s phone was tapped, he himself was accused of corruption and Tempo was taken to court. He recounts all this in a recently published book, Key Witness, which is the story of how dogged digging resulted in the Supreme Court imposing a fine of $227 million, the largest ever in Indonesian history, on a corporate empire that had until then operated with impunity.

In other places, China being the notable example, the changes were brought about not by the fall of regimes but the opening of markets. The removal of state subsidies on the media, part of the Deng Xiaoping-era reforms, meant that news organizations had to fund themselves. In order to do so, they had to take on advertisers and build audiences. Exposure was an audience-building and revenue-generating strategy.

Before 1980, there was hardly any negative news in Chinese media. Even news about traffic accidents was censored. But in the past 20 years, newspapers and magazines have been waging a guerrilla war against government censors.

For Chinese muckrakers, and indeed for investigative reporters around the world, the excesses of corrupt officials – houses, cars, watches and jewelry –– are staple fare.

In 2011, Southern Weekend, a newspaper in Guangdong, exposed a secret farm producing organic vegetables for officials of the customs department. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday, it reported, a customs truck came to the high-walled farm to pick up several thousand kilos of carefully cultivated produce. While most Chinese have to eat unsafe and contaminated food, special farms throughout the country, produce high-quality food for high officials.

Such brazen abuse of power is not uncommon. In 2012, the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan revealed that the President, half the Cabinet and two-thirds of all MPs did not pay their taxes. The report caused such outrage that last year, Pakistan became the fourth country in the world – the other three are in Scandinavia – that make tax records public.

My hobby is collecting photos of the houses of kleptocrats. I’ve collected them in a Pinterest board and they include:

  • A mansion owned by Chinese general Gu Junshang, who was alleged to have profited from the development of army-owned property. Authorities searched his home and seized a gold boat, a gold wash basin and a gold statue of Mao Zedong.
  • A 16th-century chateau in Normandy owned by former Pakistani Prime Minister Asi Alif Zardari. He flew there in 2011 during a trip to France and raised a storm of criticism because the visit took place while Pakistan was suffering from a devastating flood. He also purchased an estate worth £4 million in Surrey, the UK, in the 1990s. He is alleged to have spent £300,000 on renovations, including a private polo field and a replica of a local pub.
  • A fabulous estate in Sydney purchased for $32.4 million in 2008 by Zeng Wei, son of a former vice-president of China.

This is more than just corruption porn. The pictures – like corruption scandals — are titillating. But by exposing such excesses, journalists are signaling to citizens that these are wrong and unacceptable. By forcing thieving officials into the glare of public scrutiny, we are saying that their crimes cannot be kept secret. Journalistic exposure subjects wrongdoers to public disapproval and ridicule. Naming and shaming is what we do.

Asia a Muckraker’s Paradise

In terms of topics, Asia is a muckraker’s paradise. The range of stories is infinite. Let me list some themes of contemporary investigative reporting in Asia:

Food and product safety: whether it’s melamine-tainted powdered milk in China, caustic soda in sweets, fruits and vegetables sprayed with cancer-causing pesticides, carcinogenic artificial ripeners in fruits. In India, rat poison has been found in antibiotics. All around Asia, mercury in seafood, is a problem. Some years ago, in China and elsewhere, scandal over fever and cough medicine adulterated with diethylene glycol, a toxic industrial solvent that is a cheaper sweetener than other syrups.

Conditions of workers in the global economy: workers committing suicide in factories that produce electronic devices; garment workers laboring long hours in unsafe factories; bonded workers, sold and traded like slaves, like in the Thai shrimp industry, where they work 20-hour shifts, are beaten regularly and offered methamphetamines to keep them going.

Human trafficking is a big, global story. It rivals the drug trade as the fastest growing transnational criminal enterprise, with revenues estimated at over $30 billion a year.

The sorry state of public services: everything from the shortage of desks and textbooks in schools, public hospitals where premature babies die because there are no incubators, roads and bridges so shoddily done that they are dangerous. In India and Indochina, orphanages being used as fronts for child trafficking. In China, officials selling HIV-contaminated blood or local family planning officials seizing children from couples who could not pay the fine for having more than one child and then selling them for adoption overseas.

The devastation of the environment: forests being cut to make way for palm oil plantations, rivers made toxic by polluting factories, the poor quality of the air we breathe.

Disaster has been a major area for accountability reporting. But that has not been easy. When blindsided by the magnitude of disaster, the first reflex of governments is to gag journalists.

During and after a disaster, reporters are crucial to exposing the real magnitude of human suffering and the inadequacy of government response; they show who is responsible for the devastation, and inevitably, the corruption and incompetence in the rebuilding and rehabilitation of disaster zones.

Disasters are when inquisitive journalists are most needed, but it’s also when the muzzle is put on the press.

In the coverage of Sichuan earthquake in 2008 and its aftermath, Chinese censors banned stories on citizen protests, the numbers of schoolchildren who died, the fragility of schoolbuildings constructed in violation of building codes, local officials bribing parents so they would not protest and miscarriages by women in temporary housing camps. Some quake survivors said that the miscarriages may have been caused by high levels of formaldehyde in the prefabricated housing.

In Japan in the immediate aftermath of the nuclear plant disaster in Fukushima, officials evaded journalistic inquiries and cracked down on Internet sites accused of spreading false rumors. Last year, the Japanese government approved a secrecy law that would impose up to 10-year jail terms for journalists and whistleblowers who reveal “secrets,” including information on nuclear power plants.

In the last 40 years, according to an Asahi Shimbun investigation, Japan’s top utility companies spent 2.4 trillion yen ($27.6 billion) to purchase media advertising to promote nuclear power.

Japanese freelancers have more leeway to report. But in 2012, Minoru Tanaka, a freelance investigative journalist was sued for nearly $900,000 in damages by one of the leading figures of Japan’s nuclear industry. Tanaka had been writing about Japan’s “nuclear industrial complex,” and the links between industry, politics advertising and the bureaucracy.

Not Enough Digging into Financial Dealmaking

Such collusion happens everywhere and the truth is that the booming business press in Asia (like in the US and elsewhere) has been good at celebrating the entrepreneurial triumphs of Asian businessmen, especially in the region’s fastest growing economies. But it has been remiss in exposing the dealmaking taking place in the corridors of finance.

This is a space that independent and investigative journalists should own. It’s not easy, but journalists have been able to do this through international collaborations or through independent publishing.

Journalists in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines took part in a global investigation on offshore companies. Working with the US-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, they examined how companies and politicians used offshore entities to evade taxes and hide illicit wealth.

Indian and global media have covered the epic rivalry between the billionaire Ambani brothers. Mukesh Ambhani, the richest man India with a net worth of $21 billion, famously built a 27-story home in a posh neighborhood in Mumbai while his brother Anil, the 11th richest in India, bought his wife a luxury yacht and spent $84 million to refurbish the interiors.

What journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta found was that the squabble between the brothers was linked to the ricing of natural gas and the distribution of the profits from this public resource. His book, Oil Wars, is a story of collusion among businessmen, politicians and bureaucrats.

We need more of these.

There is, for example, a noticeable lack of reporting on Chinese companies and how they operate overseas. In almost every country in the region, Chinese companies have been controversial, either in their dealings with politicians or because of their labor, safety and environmental standards.

Investigating Wealth and Poverty in a Growing Asia

All over Asia, there is growing inequity. The Wealth Report, which tracks so-called high net worth individuals, projects a 66% increase in number of Asian billionaires and a 52% increase in centa-millionaires in the next 10 years. While Asia has made great strides in poverty reduction in the past decades, the pendulum is swinging the other way.

We see this in the rise of gated communities in Asia’s big cities – the ghettoes that shield the wealthy from the poverty outside. Real estate and property development is one of the fastest growing businesses in Asia, and it has not been investigated enough. There is not enough reporting on the business and its involvement in the displacement of local communities, in deals with politicians, or in government funds being siphoned off to build roads and other infrastructure for these developments, to the detriment of services for the poor.

We cannot do this alone. We have to work together. We also need to muster the energy of our citizens. There are 4.5 billion people in Asia – that’s 9 billion eyes that can potentially be monitoring wealth and power.

In many of the scandals in the region – the coverups in Sichuan and Fukushima, the exposure of corruption in high places – citizens have provided information, used Geiger counters to measure their exposure to radiation and employed sensors to monitor air pollution. They have also provided leads and taken photos, they have put material online that is censored elsewhere. We have not yet begun to see the power of the 9 billion.

Worldwide, and certainly in Asia, there has been a rollback in many areas of freedom of expression we enjoyed 20 years ago. The great battle of the 21st Century will be one between secrecy and openness. Journalists cannot fight this alone. We need the billions on our side.

We also have not fully utilized the power of technology. Watchdog reporters throughout Asia have been able to do groundbreaking exposés using not just the traditional muckraking tools but also data and drones, sensors and satellite images. The repertoire that is available to investigative journalists is expanding everyday. We have never been so empowered. Even in North Korea, dedicated watchers have used satellite images to show construction in the country’s plutonium production reactor and activists have used Google earth to show where North Korean prison camps are located.

Our Power Comes from Tradition not Technology

But our real power comes not from technology but from something older and deeper. It draws from history, and in explaining ourselves and legitimizing what it is we do, we have not drawn enough from the well of tradition. It’s been said that notions of accountability and the Fourth Estate are uniquely Western and not woven into fabric of our cultures. And yet, throughout all our nations’ histories, there have always been men and women, who exposed the abuse of power and the hypocrisy of those who wielded it. They were the conscience of their societies.

Coronel4In January 1897, Mohandas Gandhi, then 27 years old, was on a ship sailing back from Bombay in British India to his home in the South African port of Durban. At that time, Gandhi was a lawyer for wealthy Indian merchants but he had by then also earned a reputation as a passionate and effective campaigner for Indian rights in South Africa.

He landed in Durban on a steamship filled with Indian laborers, and there, waiting for him at the port, was a mob of white workers. They claimed Gandhi was organizing an “Asiatic Invasion” and that he had brought with him, not guns or ammunition, but a printing press and 30 typesetters.

None of these charges was true, but the white mob at the port was so spooked by the idea of an invasion equipped with a phantom press that they attacked Gandhi – they kicked him, whipped him with a lash, and threw stale fish and mud at him. They hurt his eye and cut his ear, his clothes were bloodied and his hat was taken off his head. The crowd swelled during the attack, yelling as they followed Gandhi to an Indian’s house where he had sought shelter. Gandhi had to be smuggled out of there, dressed in a police constable’s clothes, and brought to safety to the police station.

The following year, Gandhi did set up a printing press and published a newspaper, Indian Opinion, that was written in four languages and contained news summaries and extracts of essays and literary texts from across the world. In any given issue or almost any given page, wrote Isabel Hofmeyr, one encountered in Indian Opinion an “intersection of empires, races and religions.” Gandhi’s paper was the late 19th-early 20th Century version of Huffington Post, Slate, Quartz, and Wikipedia.

I am telling this story because before all those devices you now hold in your hand or keep in your bags, there were printing presses. And there was a time when the mere idea of one made people tremble.

Coronel5Emilio Aguinaldo, leader of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, was declared president of an independent Philippine republic in 1898. After ousting the Spaniards, Aguinaldo had to face the Americans, who had taken over the Philippines from Spain . Aguinaldo’s troops fought valiantly but could not match American firepower.

When fleeing with what remained of his ragtag army, Aguinaldo carried with him a small press, from which was printed the newsletter of the revolution. At one point, he wrote a directive to his troops, instructing them to transport copies of the revolutionary papers on horseback and to make sure the bundles of newspapers were wrapped in banana leaves so they would not get wet.

In 1904, Liang Qichao founded the newspaper Shibao in Shanghai. Throughout Chinese history there have always educated men, members of the literati who spoke for those who were excluded from the upper echelons of the imperial hierarchy. You might call them imperially sanctioned critics, they were the enlightened elite. Qichao himself was a mandarin, a forward-thinking Confucian scholar who used Shibao to propagate the notion that public participation in the political process energized society and propelled social progress.

We are walking on paths that have been well-trod. Speaking truth to power IS an Asian value. In some societies, the watchdog role of the press is appreciated and entrenched in tradition. In others, as a Chinese journalist told me, journalists see themselves not so much as watchdogs but woodpeckers, chipping on the tree of power, but not cutting it down.

To use a metaphor Marcos used for critical journalists, we are mosquitoes – irritants on the skin of power. Or, as the former Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said of East Timor, we are the pebble in the shoe of the powerful. Our task is to make power uncomfortable.

We do so armed with facts and evidence, not with polemic and argument. We are the conscience of our societies. We hold up a mirror to power. The work we do is important. It is also dangerous. The astonishing thing is we have been able to do so much despite the constraints. In China, journalists are censored, fired and imprisoned. In the Philippines and Pakistan, they are killed. In many countries, watchdog journalism has to fight for space in competitive media markets ruled by the sensational and superficial.

Whatever metaphor we choose to describe ourselves, our task is to show exactly where the wrongdoing lies and why it needs to be corrected. Ours is a role imbued with symbolic significance. 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.

coronelSheila Coronel is dean of academic affairs at the Columbia Journalism School, where she founded the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism. She is co-founder and former executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

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