What’s Going On At PCIJ?
As its top people leave, the future looks hazy,
What’s Going On In PCIJ?
By Hector Bryant L. Macale
ANY DISCUSSION on the state of investigative journalism in the country would not be complete without mentioning the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).
Established in 1989, PCIJ has made waves in press circles here and abroad through a body of work that has raised the bar for investigative reports in this part of the world. It has helped the Filipino public to better understand numerous issues involving politics and governance, the environment, and education, among many critical areas of concern.
It has jolted the nation with its findings, prompting government action and facilitating, in the case of the now-detained former President Joseph Estrada, the ouster of a chief executive from office. Its training programs in and outside the country have introduced more than a thousand journalists to the basics of investigative journalism.
The various awards PCIJ has received have inspired other practitioners to take up the pursuit of hidden “truths,” making investigative reporting a part of mainstream print journalism, and initiating radio and television journalists to the practice.
PCIJ was the first to upload online the audio files and transcripts of the “Hello, Garci” tapes, which recorded conversations between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and former elections commissioner Virgilio Garcil-lano when the votes in the 2004 elections were being tallied. Undoubtedly, PCIJ played a big role in unraveling the scandal that led to the Arroyo administra-tion’s worst political crisis.
PCIJ’s courageous reporting on this and other issues has made it an important part of the press, proving itself an ally of those working for greater transparency and accountability in govern-ment. Press organizations like PCIJ play a critical role in fragile democracies like the Philippines.
After years of honing its capacity to play that role, PCIJ moved into a critical phase in 2006. Executive director Sheila Coronel accepted an invitation to join the faculty of Columbia University in New York for at least three years. But even before her departure, the next two most senior members of the organization had resigned.
Yvonne Chua had served as PCIJ’s training desk director since 1995. She resigned from PCIJ in June 2006 and is now a professor of journalism at the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, while continuing to train journa-lists both in the Philippines as well as abroad in investigative journalism and to write investigative reports.
Luz Rimban joined PCIJ in 1994, handling PCIJ’s women’s desk before becoming the mana-ger of its broadcast desk when it was created in 1999. Like Chua, with whom she often collaborates, Rimban continues to write investigative reports and is currently a journalism instructor at the Ateneo de Manila University.
Coronel was PCIJ’s most celebrated persona. She was the organization’s first and longest-staying executive director, holding the position for 16 years. PCIJ became one of the most prominent media organizations in the Philippines and Asia under her leadership. When she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts in 2003, she was cited for “leading a groundbreaking collaborative effort to develop investigative journalism as a critical component of democratic discourse in the Philippines.”
Coronel announced her resignation as PCIJ executive director in a Sept. 11 post in Inside PCIJ, the group’s institutional blog. Aside from teaching at the graduate school of journalism at Columbia University in New York, she was also named the inaugural director and faculty chair of Columbia’s newly established Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.
Coronel said she would remain on the PCIJ board as a trustee and would continue to help the organization, which she noted has started shifting to the new media. Describing the remaining staff as talented, committed, and hardworking, and the members of its board of editors as among the country’s best journalists, Coronel said that although she may be no longer be there to lead the organization, “I leave knowing that the PCIJ is a sturdy ship with a first-class crew that knows where it wants to go.”
Replacing Sheila Coronel is turning out to be difficult, says PCIJ multimedia desk director Alecks Pabico. He also admits that a comparison of the post-Coronel PCIJ with the pre-Coronel PCIJ is inevitable. In the meantime, PCIJ Fellow Jaileen Jimeno is going to be PCIJ’s new deputy executive director. Jime-no came on board last January. She used to be a program unit manager of GMA-7 TV.
When the leader leaves
So will the institution’s stature and reputation be affected by Coronel’s departure?
PCIJ board member and Newsbreak editor-in-chief Marites Vitug said, “In an ideal world, it shouldn’t. Because leaders should prepare their institutions to withstand crises with or without them. But in reality, we tend to associate institutions with people. And definitely, there will be an impact. But it shouldn’t take away the credit from others in the institution.” According to her, PCIJ can survive the resignation of its longest-staying executive director, but the adjustment period “will take some time.” PCIJ is still looking for someone who can take up the full-time post of executive director.
“So, yes, there’s a definite impact with the absence of Sheila because she was there 15 years of her life,” Vitug says, adding, “But the institution should be strong enough to cope and produce new leaders. That’s why in other organizations, it’s always good to train the second-tier leaders so that someone will take over when the leader goes.”
PCIJ’s second-tier leaders were Chua and Rimban. When Coronel announced her plans to leave for New York, not a few thought that the next executive director would be either of the two.
Apart from being noted journalism educators and trainors, Chua and Rimban are also among the country’s best journalists. Chua and Rimban’s numerous awards in journalism attest to this. Only three journalists have been elevated to the Jaime V. Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism (JVOAEJ) Hall of Fame so far: Coronel, Chua, and Rimban. Administered by the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) since 1990, the JVOAEJ is often described as the country’s most prestigious journalism award.
More than two months before Coronel’s resignation, however, Chua and Rimban had already resigned from PCIJ. The two left after a difficult period which involved a number of personal and professional issues with Coronel.
PJR Reports tried getting Coronel, Chua, and Rimban to talk about these issues, but all three declined to be interviewed. In her reply to PJR Reports’s request for an interview, Coronel said that although she is theoretically still with the PCIJ board, she has not attended any board meetings and her involvement with the group had become minimal since her transfer to Columbia University.
“Some issues seemed personal while others were professional,” says Luis V. Teodoro who served briefly as chair of PCIJ’s board of directors and who is now CMFR deputy director. “These were, of course, all internal matters.”
Malou Mangahas, vice-president for research and content development at GMA-7 TV network, became PCIJ’s board chair after Teodoro left. She has told PJR Reports that “(Chua and Rimban) were asked to stay on, ayaw nila eh (but they did not want to).” Not only were they asked to stay on, but they were even asked to take over as executive director, she says. “Twice they were asked to take on the job of executive director, (but) they didn’t want to.” According to PJR Reports sources, it came to a point where neither was willing to consider staying with PCIJ.
Melinda Quintos de Jesus, executive director of CMFR, who considers herself a friend of Coronel, Chua, and Rimban, says that: “Such an internal crisis should be seen as par for the course in the growth of an institution, especially one with strong players and personalities. The unity and harmony of a group is tested by all kinds of conflicts and differences.”
A media concern
Now chair of the editorial board of BusinessWorld, former CMFR board chair Vergel Santos believes that the changes at PCIJ, particularly the loss of its most senior writers, are a media concern, especially in these times “when the media are being criticized for all sorts of biases, and even prejudices, and all sorts of wrongdoing.”
Santos thinks that Coronel, Chua, and Rimban should have spoken up when they were sought for an interview to clarify the matter. “In fact, journalists should be more open than other sources if only to prove their fair-mindedness,” said Santos. “It is something that you keep proving with every story, with every issue, with every job.”
For Teodoro, the changes in PCIJ’s composition will definitely have an impact on the organization. And given PCIJ’s special place in media, the changes in the organization will have an impact on the Philippine press.
“These changes in the Philippine press, in turn, will have an effect on how Philippine governance is being monitored by the press, which is extremely critical in these times. What’s important is PCIJ’s future,” says Teodoro.
So the task for PCIJ is to move on.
“Of course, we miss (Chua and Rimban),” i Report deputy editor Cecille Balgos told PJR Reports in a phone interview. “We’ve been together for such a long time.”
Balgos, however, says that it is just natural for organizations to have changes, including in its personnel. “It’s not as if there hadn’t been any staff changes before,” she says.
Pabico likewise feels there was a big change when Chua and Rimban left. Their resignations, he says, caught PCIJ off-guard. “We were impaired by the loss of three senior editors,” he says.
Their expertise—Chua as a news manager and Rimban as broadcast journalist—will be greatly missed, Pabico says. He also admits that during the transition period, PCIJ has not done many investigative stories.
That doesn’t mean, however, that the others left in PCIJ staff are not as good as those who left, PCIJ board member and ANC newscaster David Celdran says.
According to Celdran, “There is no question about their competence.” There may be different styles of doing things, he says, “but it’s all within the high standards of PCIJ.”
Filling in the void
Celdran says PCIJ’s output of stories is not affected by the resignations because it relies on its network of journalists for the stories, aside from those coming from the staff. “We’ve lost three of the top contributors of the organization, but we have others who have been able to fill in the void, so to speak,” he adds.
But Celdran also admits that losing their three most senior writers who, in his own words, “had made some of the best stories of PCIJ,” was definitely a big loss for the organization.
Pabico maintains that PCIJ still has what it takes to do investigative reporting, which the organization has been known for. He says that Chua trained him for several years in the challenges of doing investigative reporting. “Tiwala naman siya sa capabilities ko (She believes in my capabilities),” he says.
Before the three resigned, PCIJ had four program desks: broadcast, training, editorial, and research. The resignations resulted in a reorganization last year. Now, PCIJ has three desks: investigative reporting (headed by Jimeno); training (with Pabico as officer-in-charge); and multimedia (with Pabico as head). Mangahas explains that, “There had to be some rethinking as well of how we do our administrative process, of how we structure the board vis-à-vis the executive directors and the program directors.”
The recent changes in PCIJ’s staff and organizational setup will not deter PCIJ from continuing to write investigative stories and training journalists, its board and staff members say. This year, according to Celdran, will be “basically a continuation of what we’ve always been doing.” PCIJ will be able to continue its stories and projects because of the high professional standards set by its competent staff and board, he adds. Aside from Mangahas, Vitug, and Celdran, the other board members include Severino, Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Ceres Doyo, and corporate executive Dominick Danao, who used to be an editor at The Manila Times and Today.
“We’ll still go for high-impact stories,” Pabico says. With one or two high-impact stories, he says, “balik na ang PCIJ (PCIJ is back on track). I mean, there will be no more doubt.” He adds that PCIJ already has stories lined up on and for the coming mid-term elections.
Jimeno agrees. “We’re really looking for big stories this year so that there won’t be any questions on what will happen to PCIJ. We want to assure everyone that PCIJ programs and platforms will continue.”