Investigative Journalism in the Philippines

Map of the Philippines.  Maguindinao is in the southern province of Mindanao.  From WikiCommons

Map of the Philippines. Maguindinao is in the southern province of Mindanao.
From WikiCommons

On November 23, 2009, a convoy of 58 men and women, 32 of them journalists, were slaughtered by gunmen outside of Ampatuan, a town in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao.  The victims were headed to the provincial office of the Commission on Elections to watch the wife of Esmael Mangudadatu file his certificate of candidacy for Maguindanao’s gubernatorial post.

The Ampatuan Massacre underscores the chaos and violence of Philippine politics — it was carried out on orders from the Ampatuans, a clan who has traditionally controlled Maguindanao and who, by all accounts, wasn’t eager to sacrifice this control.  Furthermore, the massacre spotlights the culture of impunity enjoyed by those in the Philippines who threaten and kill journalists.

Every year, the Committee to Protect Journalists releases its Impunity Index, which measures cases around the world where journalists are murdered but their killers go unpunished.  Since 2010, the Philippines has ranked number 3 on the index, behind only Iraq and Somalia in 2013 and 2014.  In the case of the Maguindanao Massacre, Freedom House notes that just 104 of the 196 suspects have been arraigned and only 108 arrested.

Despite the ongoing and unpunished violence against journalists, investigative journalism in the Philippines continues to thrive, shedding light on corrupt politicians, bad governance, and money politics.  In the United States, investigative journalism is best exemplified by Woodward and Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate Scandal.  In the Philippines, investigative journalism uncovered hidden assets by President Joseph Estrada, resulting in an impeachment trial and his resignation.

10 December 2009   Protests against President Arroyo's declaration of Martial Law in Maguindanao.   Photo by Magic Liwanag

10 December 2009
Protests against President Arroyo’s declaration of Martial Law in Maguindanao.
Photo by Magic Liwanag

According to a report by David E. Kaplan to CIMA, investigative journalism is more systematic and in-depth than other reporting.  Kaplan’s definition echoes the scientific method, involving a question or issue to be tackled, intense background research, the forming and testing of a hypothesis, and the analyzing and communication of results.  The proper application of this methodology only comes with intense training that emphasizes the use of primary sources, fact-checking, public records, and computer-assisted reporting.  Investigative journalists must be patient and thorough, as their stories can take more than weeks or months to complete.

In particular, Kaplan notes that the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) “has grown into the gold standard for investigative reporting in Asia.”  The center was founded in 1989 and has since broken stories in a variety of platforms and media, produced eight documentaries, and brought to light government corruption and corporate abuse.  Trainers at the center have educated investigative journalists not only in the Philippines, but throughout Asia, as well.

Investigative journalism can be a powerful tool for development, though challenges remain. Investigative journalism programs in developing countries aren’t well-funded (CIMA estimates that these programs only take up about 2 percent of the annual $500 million spent by international donors on media assistance worldwide).  Part of this problem stems from the difficulty in assessing the transformative power of investigative journalism, which can deter potential international donors, leading to underfunded and unsustainable programs. Furthermore, potential investigative journalists throughout the developing world need proper training from seasoned journalists and editors, as well as country-wide, regional, and international networks of legal, monetary, and moral support.  This, too, requires a lot of time and money.  On the more local level, as well, long-term, self-sustaining business models for investigative journalism have not yet been fully established.

Investigative journalism’s high standards become all the more important when looking at the more sensational and tabloid-style coverage in a lot of the Philippine news media.  Investigative journalism not only sheds light on important issues, but can potentially raise the bar for good journalism in the country as a whole.

Mendiola, Manila, Philippines 26 November 2009 Maguindanao Massacre Rally.  Protests for justice. Photo from Magic Liwanag

Mendiola, Manila, Philippines
26 November 2009
Maguindanao Massacre Rally. Protests for justice.
Photo from Magic Liwanag

Ayee Macaraig is one such journalist in the Philippines trying to do this work.  Ayee is a multimedia journalist for the Philippines news website,, covering topics such as domestic politics, government corruption, women’s health, and the UN.  Ayee has also done some investigative reporting, and offered personal insight into the state of investigative journalism in the Philippines during a recent visit to CIMA.  She says the Filipino public has always welcomed investigative journalism, and it’s only becoming more important with the revelations of corruption scandals last year and the upcoming presidential elections in 2016.

Listen to the podcast above to hear more of Ayee’s thoughts on investigative journalism in the Philippines.  She gives examples of the fraught relationship between investigative journalists and the government, her thoughts on her favorite investigative piece that she wrote, and how she thinks data journalism and online media are changing the face of investigative journalism in the country.

You can follow Ayee on Twitter at @ayeemacaraig .


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Posted in Asia, Podcasts, Sustainability

It’s time for a special rapporteur for freedom of expression in ASEAN

“Every person has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information, whether orally, in writing or through any other medium of that person’s choice.”  - ASEAN Human Rights Declaration 

As President Obama visits the capital of Myanmar on November 12th and 13th to attend the US-ASEAN Summit, he will meet with leaders of a region where freedom of expression and the media (not to mention democracy) are in serious trouble.

Although enshrined in ASEAN’s 2012 human rights declaration, freedom of expression is uneven and poorly protected throughout the regional bloc. Indonesia and the Philippines still boast dynamic, if flawed, democratic societies, but backsliding in Thailand, stilted reform in Myanmar and continued one-party dominance in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos creates a stifling climate for independent media and freedom of expression activists in much of the region.

Only Indonesia, Timor-Leste and the Philippines avoided Freedom House’s purple “not free” rating.

The world’s fifth special rapporteur on freedom of expression?

Last year, during the 15th ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) in Pnomh Penh, Cambodia, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE), IFEX, and others called on ASEAN to do more to protect human rights in the region. The statement most notably called for the establishment of a “special rapporteur for freedom of opinion and expression” who would “provide a bridge between civil society and governments.”

A special rapporteur on freedom of expression for ASEAN has also been endorsed by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and would become the 5th such figure in the world, following the United Nations (UN), Organization of American States (OAS), African Union (AU) and The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

What could a special rapporteur actually accomplish?

A recent report by Internews Europe, entitled “Freedom of Expression and Right to Information in ASEAN Countries,” suggests that a lack of “systemic collaboration” between freedom of expression proponents both within and between countries of ASEAN undermines the prospect for greater protections, particularly on critical issues such as the rise of restrictive media laws, censorship, impunity, and disparity of access to research and best practices.

To this end, a special rapporteur on freedom of expression could be a vital networking resource or “bridge” for media and freedom of expression activists across the region. By providing a hub for scattered and disconnected activists, a special rapporteur could help promote best practice-sharing and collaboration to strengthen the freedom of expression community and independent media sector across the region. Furthermore, the establishment of such an envoy would help lend credibility to the region’s oft-lamented human rights declaration by demonstrating ASEAN’s concrete commitment to freedom of opinion and expression.

Where does ASEAN leadership stand on freedom of expression?

In order for the establishment of a special rapporteur for freedom of expression, ASEAN needs leadership to emerge from within the bloc but the ASEAN tradition of non-interference in domestic affairs often impedes such leadership on politically sensitive issues.

As ASEAN inches closer to a political, economic, social and cultural community by the end of 2015, the role of media will be crucial in supporting such integration. This in turn could provide impetus for regional leaders to push for further support for freedom of expression and media.

As Thai political commentator, Kavi Chongkittavorn, notes in a recent column in The Nation, “The [ASEAN] charter and other key documents stipulate clearly the role of media in promoting and raising ASEAN awareness, a sense of community and supporting ASEAN identity building efforts.” A special rapporteur could be one important step in this direction.

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Posted in Asia, Sustainability

Community Radio for Development in Somalia


Media development can be tricky in a place like Somalia.  Arbitrary arrests of journalists, raids and closures of radio stations, and threats of violence against journalists, including from al-Shabaab militants, are commonplace.

The lack of a legal environment in which a free press and free expression are protected only exacerbates the problem.  For example, the Somali government approved a draft media bill on September 1, 2014 meant to aid media reform, create jobs, and protect the rights of Somali media workers.  A day after the bill’s approval, however, the government banned national media coverage of al-Shabaab activities.  Police forces have since used this ban to justify the arbitrary arrests of a number of radio journalists and the shuttering of radio stations.

In light of community radio’s role in Somalia’s media development, these attacks on radio stations and journalists are particularly disconcerting.

Radio Shabelle is one of Mogadishu's most popular radio stations and has exposed itself to considerable danger in the past for actively taking a stance against the terrorist organiztion Al-Shabab. AU-UN IST PHOTO / TOBIN JONES.

Radio Shabelle is one of Mogadishu’s most popular radio stations and has exposed itself to considerable danger in the past for actively taking a stance against the terrorist organiztion Al-Shabab. AU-UN IST PHOTO / TOBIN JONES.

Community radio is “radio by and for the community, be it a physical community or a community of interest, with an emphasis on community ownership and management on a not-for-profit basis.”  By definition, then, a community can be anything from a local village to a group of people speaking a common language or sharing a religion.

Community radio’s greatest strength is its participatory nature.  Whether people are bringing up hyper-local concerns, such as a village’s need for a well with clean drinking water, or broader-based issues, such as women demanding that gender-based violence during conflicts be addressed, community radio gives the ordinary person a chance to speak for him or herself.  Rather than hearing from government officials or powerful businessmen, community radio amplifies the voices of some of the most marginalized in society, including women, the poor, and the disabled, encouraging others like them to participate.

Community radio’s grassroots focus can be seen as a challenge to the power of the state and elites.  It is not uncommon to see governments trying to buy off community radios or threaten them with fees or legal action.  These kinds of things can be extremely damaging, as community radios are usually small projects that require plenty of international aid for basic upkeep.

The issue of funding community radio initiatives is something that continues to be debated.  International donors provide grants for a number of community radio projects around the world, but there is a fear and uncertainty about the sustainability of these projects independent from this assistance.  Can community radio throughout the developing world thrive without international assistance?

Funding can also affect programming.  In a report to CIMA, for example, Mary Myers notes that Nepali community radio stations depend heavily on news bulletins and programs from the same production units and NGOs in Kathmandu, resulting in less diversity and local content than was originally anticipated.

In a country like Somalia, where only less than half of the population is literate (37.8 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook), and where access to alternative news sources through computers and mobiles is hampered by poor infrastructure, community radio is especially valuable in development and democracy promotion.  Community radio can help people access information unblemished by propaganda, violent and discriminatory rhetoric, and government bias.  The BBC’s Somali Service and BBC Media Action, for example, have participated in community radio programs that promote things like polio tracking, literacy, and artistic expression.

I sat down with Eric Robinson, the Senior Program Officer for East and Southern Africa at the National Endowment for Democracy, to learn more about community radio’s role in Somalia’s development.   Is there a sustainable model for community radio outside of international donor funding?  What are the challenges faced by local radio journalists and international donors?  What is the future of community radio in the country? Listen to the podcast above for answers to these questions and more.

Podcast music:  ”Kurbu” by Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure, licensed under Creative Commons

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Posted in Africa, Podcasts, Sustainability

MARK HELMKE, 1951-2014

Present at the Creation of CIMA

Guest post by Marguerite Hoxie Sullivan

Mark Helmke, a CIMA Advisory Council member and a prime mover behind the idea for the center, died Saturday at his Indiana home. He was just two days short of his 63rd birthday.

Mark, a former journalist and longtime senior aide to Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, worked with the senator in advocating for democracy and displayed a passion of his own to raise the visibility and improve the effectiveness of media development around the world. Mark’s concept for the center was not that it would compete with existing media development organizations but rather that it would bring the stakeholders together, share information, track government media-support efforts, and encourage the private sector to be more involved.

“Mark and Senator Lugar believed strongly that CIMA could expand the impact of the U.S. media assistance by providing a forum and acting as a convener for those with on-the ground roles in expanding free expression,” said Kurt Wimmer, a CIMA Advisory Council member and a partner in the law firm of Covington and Burling.  Wimmer, who has worked on freedom of information globally, was a key player in the discussions leading up to the creation of CIMA with Mark, Lugar, and the National Endowment for Democracy, where CIMA is housed.

A strong advocate of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, Mark was also a bulldog about supporting democracy.  He appreciated the centrality of these freedoms to the creation and development of sustainable democracies and hence how CIMA could contribute to the critical mission of the NED, about which he cared so dearly. He was behind the 2004 legislation that called for CIMA’s creation and placement at the NED.

“Mark worked closely with the National Endowment for Democracy in the creation of the Center for International Media Assistance,” said Carl Gershman, president of the  NED.  “It was a great collaboration and led to the establishment of a very important center to highlight the importance of media in democratic development and to advise the governments and others on the best way to provide assistance in that field.” Gershman called Mark “informed, imaginative, and passionate in his commitment.”

When I got to the NED to launch and then run CIMA, I soon met the passionate, fast-talking and energetic Helmke and was blasted with ideas. “Get CIMA up fast,” he urged, “talk to the private sector. Here’s someone who might be interested.”  Then typically followed his wonderful belly laugh drawing you into his great sense of humor.

An example was his “prized possession,” as he called it, which he would bring up at every meeting.  It was the last Soviet uniform of a three-star general from Ukraine whom  Mark said he had lobbied to join the Nunn-Lugar program to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons.

Mark’s career always centered on communications. He began as a journalist on the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, then moved to Senator Lugar’s staff. He later became an international business and political consultant, building a company that grew from 5 to 450 employees, and for many years he served as press secretary for Lugar and as a staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He left the Senate in 2012 after  Lugar’s primary election defeat and returned to Indiana to teach at Trine University. Communications was among the subjects he taught.

“Mark Helmke was a talented public servant, communicator, teacher, and political observer with whom I was privileged to work for many years,”  Lugar said in a statement.  He commended him for the roles he played in the fights against apartheid in South Africa, for democracy in Latin America, and to create a post-Soviet government in Ukraine.

And to this I would add his work with CIMA.

It was perhaps Mark’s strong commitment to freedom of expression and journalistic independence that framed “his determination to expand that essential freedom to countries that lacked it,” CIMA Advisory Council member Wimmer said. “The strong and sustainable role that CIMA has played in the international media stage should be seen as one of Mark’s key accomplishments.”

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Posted in General

Information becoming toughest commodity to get in Venezuela

With their country’s economy in crisis, Venezuelans are facing shortages of just about everything – milk, flour, toilet paper, cooking oil–and information.

The Venezuelan government’s “communications hegemony is silencing the media and journalists,” said Sergio Dahbar, the former editor of the Caracas newspaper El Nacional and an investigative journalist and book publisher.

Dahbar was in Washington the week of October 27, along with his compatriot, Marianela Balbi of the Institute for Press and Society-Venezuela (IPYS in its Spanish initials), to call attention to the rapidly closing space for independent news media in Venezuela. Their visit was timed to coincide with a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on freedom of expression.

Leading news organizations such as the television broadcaster Globovision and the newspaper El Universal have been sold, without much transparency about who the new owners are. “In Venezuela it is unknown who the proprietors of the media are,” Dahbar said during one of several meetings and discussions during his visit.

Reporters have lost their jobs. Newsprint shortages have caused papers to reduce their page count drastically. Entire areas of coverage have been placed off limits by the governments, and media managers are starting to censor their own reporters by omitting coverage of sensitive subjects.

In a survey of 225 Venezuelan journalists that IPYS-Venezuela conducted earlier this year, 34 percent said that most of the direct censorship comes from  the executive branch of government, 17 percent said the judiciary, and 14 percent pointed to the legislative branch. A large majority of the journalists–79 percent– said they had experienced impediments to access to information by government institutions.

From slide presentation by Marianela Balbi of the Institute for Press and Society-Venezuela.

From slide presentation by Marianela Balbi of the Institute for Press and Society-Venezuela.

Balbi cited the example of a radio station whose niche is traffic coverage, specifically of a main highway that links two parts of the country. If the road is closed by a protest, the station cannot report the cause, as that would be considered political coverage. “What [is it] supposed to report about why the highway is closed?” Balbi asked.

Six Twitter users are currently in jail for their tweets including one who commented on the death of a legislator.

“To inform is to be a terrorist” in the eyes of the Venezuelan government, Dahbar said.

Dahbar is trying to combat government pressure on the media by publishing books, which so far have faced fewer restrictions than news media. But, he pointed out, in a country of 30 million people, a press run of 20,000 books–which would be huge–can’t make much of a difference. And book publishing, too, is facing a paper shortage.

The one bright spot, Dahbar said, is online investigative journalism. But even this is in a precarious position as 90 percent of Venezuela’s Internet traffic passes through a single, state-owned Internet service provider.

A questioner at one of the events asked what foreigners could do to help. While foreign journalists have come to Venezuela to help with training in areas such as data journalism, Dahbar said, Venezuelans will have to solve this for themselves. “We’re not expecting someone to come and save us.”

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Posted in Latin American and the Caribbean, Sustainability