HIGHLIGHTS

  • In the mid-1980s, Coronel covered the movement to bring President Marcos down and emerged as one of the bright young chroniclers of the EDSA Revolution.
  • Growing frustrated with the constraints of a conventional newsroom, in 1989 she and eight like-minded reporters founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
  • Coronel and PCIJ exposed, among other things the role of officials and politicians and military men in massive illegal logging operations, and the shocking corruption in the Supreme Court, in the president’s cabinet, in government agencies, and in the country’s newsrooms.
  • The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “her scrupulous and probing investigative reporting in protection of individual rights and community interests.”

 CITATION

Even in a freewheeling democracy like the Philippines, can a free press truly stand free? Despite the absence of censorship, many factors mitigate against it. Newspapers and other media outlets tailor the news to sell, and to advance the interests of their owners. Governments also seek to shape the news. So do politicians, tycoons, and the military. It is hard to stand free of such forces. Yet, Sheila Coronel believes the press must strive to do so. Philippine democracy needs an honest watchdog. As leader of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, she is strengthening her country’s Fourth Estate.

Filipinos tend to agree that the press should be feisty and free. And so it was in the early decades of Philippine independence. Coronel was only fourteen, however, when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and gagged the country’s press. She took up political science at the University of the Philippines and intended to study the law, as her father had done. But instead she began writing for Philippine Panorama magazine. And when, in 1983, the assassination of Benigno Aquino, Jr., cracked the edifice of Marcos’s power and the Philippine press stirred tentatively back to life, Coronel says, “It became compelling to be a journalist.” She never looked back.

In the mid-1980s, Coronel covered the movement to bring Marcos down and emerged as one of the bright young chroniclers of the EDSA Revolution. Afterwards, she sealed her reputation at the Manila Chronicle with probing stories presented in flawless English. Her work appeared in the New York Times and the Guardian of England. Growing frustrated with the constraints of a conventional newsroom, in 1989 she and eight like-minded reporters founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). Coronel became executive director only by default, she says. Even so, except for one year, she has led the Center ever since.

Investigative journalism requires painstaking research. Reporters conduct extensive interviews and spend hours and days poring over government, bank, and court documents; business records; and electronic data bases. At the Center, Coronel and her partners used techniques like these to develop in-depth stories of public interest and to probe subjects ordinarily held secret behind layers of power. They then marketed the stories through the mainstream press. Meanwhile, through fellowships and training programs, the Center mentored younger reporters in the tools of the trade.

Finding its stride under Coronel, PCIJ plumbed the state of the nation. It probed attempts by military power-grabbers and their political allies to overthrow President Corazon Aquino. It exposed the role of officials and politicians and military men in massive illegal logging operations. It examined the suffocating grip of political clans and bosses on Philippine towns and provinces. And it exposed shocking corruption in the Supreme Court, in the president’s cabinet, in government agencies, and in the country’s newsrooms. The Center spared no legitimate target and, year by year, it gained credibility. This became clear when PCIJ’s scrupulous reporting played a key role in scrutinizing the anomalies of Joseph Estrada’s presidency and helped set the stage for the president’s eventual impeachment and dramatic ouster.

Coronel, now forty-five, avoids publicity and applies herself tirelessly to the work of the Center. Today, hundreds of articles and many books and documentary films and PCIJ’s own magazine testify to the Center’s remarkable productivity and influence under her management. They also reflect her hopeful commitment to Philippine democracy.

“We are not as cynical about our audience as many others are,” she says. “We believe in the power of an informed citizenry.”

In electing Sheila Coronel to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and the Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes her leading a groundbreaking collaborative effort to develop investigative journalism as a critical component of democratic discourse in the Philippines.

 RESPONSE

Your Excellency President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.

The great Filipino film director Lino Brocka, who received this same award in 1985, once told me, “You cannot have the great Filipino movie unless you have the great Filipino audience.”

The same, it must be said, is true of journalism.

Twenty years ago, in August of 1983, I was a rookie reporter covering the aftermath of the assassination of Senator Benigno Aquino. Ferdinand Marcos was then president and he held the media in a very tight grip. Even when millions of people were out in the streets in protest, we were not allowed to write about them. I covered the rallies in a car that had the name of my newspaper prominently painted on its doors. Several times, angry crowds surrounded our vehicle, and on one occasion, pelted it with stones. “Write the truth!” the protesters shouted at us. “Write what you see.”

Those people out in the streets were our readers. And since then I have kept my faith in them. That incident and many others through the years have affirmed my belief in the wisdom of the great Filipino audience. With them behind us, I do not see why we cannot produce great journalism.

Seventeen years after the fall of Marcos, we have an adolescent press. Its hormones are raging. It is lively and exuberant, but also unruly. Yet, for all its flaws, it has seldom shirked from its duty to hold the powerful to account. My colleagues and I at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism believe in the power of a watchdog press. We have seen how conscientious reporting empowers citizens with the information they need to take collective action against corruption and the abuse of power.

Democracy is not a spectator sport, and our people know that. We witnessed in 1986 and again in 2001 the power of people who are informed, engaged, and enraged. We are in awe of such power – and those who hope to lead us should beware of this power as well.

We thank the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation for affirming our faith and for recognizing the role that investigative journalism plays in our fledgling democracy. I will be honest by saying that this democracy has caused us much grief; but despite that, we believe in its promise. We also recognize that democracy is a sham if it is impervious to the pleas of the poor and the powerless, if it is incapable of renewal and reform.

We thank the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation for recognizing that a collaborative effort is needed to build a free and responsible press. We accept this award with gratitude and humility, remembering those who have labored in this field before us, especially those who have been killed or imprisoned for believing in the power of the word. We accept it also in anticipation of those who will come after us. May the power of the word be with them. May they keep the faith alive.

Mabuhay at maraming salamat.

 BIOGRAPHY

Two decades in journalism and Sheila Coronel can still be shocked by the brazenness of the corrupt. “They think they’ll never be caught,” she says. In one Manila land development deal in 1995 between a government agency and a foreign construction firm, the Coronel-led Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) unearthed evidence that the bribes alone totaled three billion pesos—U.S.$120 million at the exchange rate then. More tainted money gushed when the scandal broke. “Boxes of U.S. dollars were being sent at midnight to a senator’s house so he would shut up about the investigation,” Coronel recalls.

The “Grandmother of All Scams,” as the PCIJ headlined the case, is one of hundreds of hard-hitting reports the Center has produced since Coronel and eight other journalists founded the nonprofit media agency in 1989. Other stories laid bare corruption in the executive branch, Supreme Court, military, and media, leading to the resignation of two cabinet officials and a Supreme Court justice. In 2001, a series of PCIJ articles on President Joseph Estrada’s rapid accumulation of wealth contributed to his impeachment and ouster.

Meticulously researched, exhaustively reported, and backed by verifiable evidence, PCIJ’s newspaper stories, television documentaries, and books command respect across the Philippines. Coronel’s goal is to help aspiring and practicing journalists, especially in the provinces, gain the same credibility. To this end, the Center conducts training, grantwriting fellowships, and publishes how-to manuals on beat reporting, computer-assisted research, unearthing corruption, and other journalistic skills.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)