Speaking truth to power is an Asian value

(Adapted from keynote address at Uncovering Asia: The First Asian Investigative Journalism Conference, November 24, 2014, Manila)

Liang Qichao founded the newspaper Shibao in Shanghai in 1904

Liang Qichao founded the newspaper Shibao in Shanghai in 1904

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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Muckraking in digital – and democratic – Indonesia

Tempo Magazine is Indonesia's muckraker par excellence.

Tempo Magazine is Indonesia’s muckraker par excellence.

Last week, on a visit to the modest Jakarta office of the feisty Indonesian newsmagazine Tempo, I was told about one of the magazine’s proudest moments.

Now Tempo has a lot of proud moments. Founded in 1971 in the glory days of the Suharto dictatorship, it has always been an independent and credible voice. In 1994, in what would be later remembered as marking the beginning of the end of the Suharto era, the Indonesian information ministry shut down Tempo and two other publications for reporting on a government purchase of overpriced warships. Banned Tempo journalists helped set up underground newspapers, an independent journalist’s association to counter the government-sponsored one, and because the regime hadn’t yet figured out the internet, a site called Tempo Online.

Reopened in 1999, shortly after Suharto’s fall, Tempo remains the most influential and respected newsmagazine in Indonesia. But the country has changed. Indonesia is now a democracy with competitive elections and a rambunctious and free-wheeling press. It’s also in the midst of a digital revolution. The country is one of the fastest-growing mobile and tablet markets in Asia. Mobile-phone subscriptions are cheap here, with basic monthly data plans starting at $5, giving rise to what Tempo executive Bambang Harymurti calls “Facebook phones” – inexpensive handsets used mainly for getting access to the social networking site. It’s estimated that Indonesia will have 150 million people online by 2014, making it the 11th largest internet user in the world. Most of them will likely be accessing the internet through mobile devices. Read the rest of this entry »