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
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
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.