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Hu Shuli: Investigative reporting in China

By Melinda Quintos De Jesus, CMFR Executive Director. 2 September 2014

IT WAS wonderful to welcome Hu Shuli once again to Manila, on the occasion of her receiving her Ramon Magsaysay Award.

I recall first meeting her in 1998 when she came to Manila for a conference on Women and the Media organized by a US based organization. She was a very young journalist then and I had already shifted from mainstream journalism to what I call my senior career at the Center for Media Freedom & Responsibility (CMFR).

We met twice in Bali. I had asked her to update the regional Journalism Asia Forum with the advances that the Internet was making in China. It was quite clear even then that she would be making waves. A second Bali meeting was at the Aspen Institute's conference on media which I moderated. We were reunited in Bangkok sometime in 2006 at the Asia Media Forum when she had already emerged among the leading lights in the field of investigative reporting in Asia. She had not forgotten her first visit to Manila as fun-filled, with a trip to Tagaytay and a dancing session tucked between work.

Her citation as Ramon Magsaysay laureate is not surprising at all. Her work as a journalist in China is a stunning feat that raises issues about the work of the Philippine press, especially in the field of investigative reporting.
After receiving her award on Sunday, Shuli shared her observations about her career and her commitment to provide reports that matter, carving that special niche in uncovering corruption in business and the dealings of companies with government in China.

Her exposure to American media may have helped to shape her own career, with five months spent in the US as a fellow of the World Press Institute in 1987. She could have stayed in the US but she wanted to return home to share her experience and lessons learned. She wrote about her experience in a book, introducing audiences to the professional system and practice of American journalism.

After a stint as international editor for China Business Times, she established Caijing, a bi-weekly focused on business news with revealing investigative reports. This has gained a circulation of 225,000, with articles reporting on, among others, illegal trading in the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the cover-up of the SARS epidemic, and other forms of business fraud. These reports have caused the government to respond with the removal of public officials.

In 2009, she broke off to form the Caixin Media Group, which now maintains four periodicals and several online platforms, including the publication of books and production of TV/video programs.

One can imagine the care which Hu Shuli and her team give to their explosive reports. China's system would not allow much latitude for mistakes, for factual or contextual inaccuracy. The process of verification which lies at the heart of journalism serves as the foundation of Caixin reports.

One cannot listen to Shuli without wondering how her Philippine counterparts see their own obligations to their public, given the kind of freedom they enjoy, the protection given to their autonomy from government interference. These are protections Shuli and her team do not enjoy.

Some mistakes result from the haste that inheres in daily journalism, which journalists should correct. The press should voluntarily respect the right to reply of those wrongfully aggrieved by errors in reporting. But there are many other failures in accuracy and context which arise from a cavalier outlook, drawing from the grant of press freedom a sense of protected entitlement.

To listen to Shuli is to feel sharply the irony that the controlled media system in China has managed to produce excellent investigative reporting even as our press is satisfied with reports dependent on mere quotes, sometimes from one single person, on so many complex issues.

Investigative Reports through History

This is not to forget the record of excellence established by home-grown leading exponents of IR. They are well-known. But given the abundant freedom and the wide access to sources in our media environment, we should have more.

Given the role of the press in Philippine history, Filipinos should now have a world-class press.

We can rightly claim that our free press has had the longest history in all Asia. It is not surprising that the news should have such a primary place in home and public life, given that it was publications produced by exiles in Europe and smuggled into the country that planted the country's revolutionary ideals in the hearts of the people, including the masses. Along with the two novels of Jose Rizal which also gave life to these ideas, the country had much in the written word to help it wage, as recalled by Leon Ma. Guerrero, the first nationalist revolution in Asia in 1896; when the country also established the first albeit short-lived democratic republic in Asia. In 1946, Filipinos were the first Asians to win independence from a Western colonizer.

Given this history, Filipinos have taken to political talk as a national pastime and the media have given this vent adequate space, creating various platforms or channels to serve as the public square.
Broadcast media took the exchange to a new level of exchange and gave more power to the potential of exchange to bring about change with discourse and debate connecting public concerns to the people as shown through the different passages of history.

In those days, the press had already shown the potential to expose what those in power might wish to keep secret or hidden from the public eye. A columnist made the insider talk in the Malacanang the subject of his daily commentary. A young journalist, Rod Reyes, resorted to under-cover tactics to report on the drug scene. But daily, the press transformed reporting into a n instrument for citizens to learn about misconduct in high places.

The disruption of Martial Law and the strong-man rule of Ferdinand Marcos, may have caused failure of memory of these beginnings. Filipinos adjusted to a controlled and accommodating press, one willing to serve as the handmaid of government, trumpeting the claims of the New Society.

I think that Filipinos accepted this condition, because they could continue to pass around the news amongst themselves. Rumor and grapevine channelled "leaked" critical information to the public. Mimeographed copies and later Xerox copies of articles, manifestos and "white papers" were distributed, not openly, but just as effectively, raising public awareness about things that were hands-off to the Marcos press. Meaning, those who wanted to know, could find ways of discovering the truth for themselves.

In the latter days of Marcos rule, the alternative press, or as some called it, the "mosquito" press engaged as well in such in-depth investigation, with the help of counterparts abroad, tracking hidden wealth and providing accounts of how the Marcoses and their cronies stashed wealth in accounts abroad or of their investments in assets in foreign capitals. Other reports kept tabs on the movements underground who were seeking visible platforms for their own political views. This press provided the alternative parallel view of the state of affairs as reported in the crony press: human rights violations; the growing disenchantment among the military, the state of insurgencies in Mindanao. Thus, the alternative press at the time played a role in forming the political will of the people to stand against the dictator and demand that he step down.

PH Exponents of IR

It was not surprising then, that after 1986, with the fullness of freedom to blow wind into journalistic sails, investigative reporting in the Philippines would prove itself world class, with enough force to exert pressure for policy changes, enough influence to galvanize once again the will of the people and force the impeachment of a corrupt president, proving the shared information about abuse and excess in high office is necessary to mobilize popular action. Magsaysay awardee, Sheila Coronel, the founder of PCIJ has moved on to become the dean of the Columbia School of Journalism.

Only recently, reports of the derailment of development funds into powerful pockets have made the unthinkable happen, the arrest and detention of longtime politicians who will now face charges in court.
Clearly, our media development reflects the expectation: journalism that matters must give investigative reporting a central place.

And yet, we need to admit, we do not have anything like Caixin. And this I think is betrayal of the struggle of journalists to be free.

Is it the commercialism of the media enterprise that has driven so much space and time to celebrity news and the quick serving of bits and pieces of political scandal? Is it the owners who fail to enshrine public service, not profits and career gains in the framework of their business model? Is it the media buyers who manage the advertising placements who rule content as well?

The Challenge of New Media Environment

Some may object and say that the in-depth report, the lengthy documentary and money trail have all lost the audience. But there is so much advanced technology that can explore data visualization with such impact and effect to aid public understanding – and these graphic innovations can be easily innovated for print or TV media.

Journalism does not give up on journalism that matters because the habits of the current audience are changing? The challenge is basic: It lies in understanding the data and being able to make sense of it, and using technology to translate these in more digestible, or readable, formats.

The quick encounters between reporters and a source (usually a public official) can only give us so much information. To stick only to standard form of news accounts is to leave off so much of the story unreported. The he-said, she-said formula requires more context to be of any real value and I think the time and space given to these is a waste of resources.

Perhaps, the entire newsroom needs to re-construct the apparatus of news reporting – to be able to enhance its capacity to report on the more complex issues and problems in public affairs.

The press still owes its audience the larger view, the background and analysis – for that public to gain the necessary understanding of the dilemmas confronting leadership and the rest of society.

In the end, the press must keep up with the demands of a more complex information environment. And keeping up with the technology is only part of that challenge and growth.

Media development must also proceed in creating the instruments of sustained national conversation when these conversations break up into the various streams of public concern.

What we may be facing at some point is a level of information overload when the most important revelations provided by IR become only the blip that disappears too quickly on the public screens of news, and may be left in the forgotten corners of the public mind.

But will investigative reporting succeed to promote good governance? Shouldn't we wonder about how easily a politician can set aside the impact of investigative reports on charges of unexplained wealth, and seek national office; because people, even journalists themselves, have forgotten or have been given cause for loss of memory?

Or, after, investigative reports drive street protests to impeach a president hounded by the scandal of corruption, that ex-president can run for public office again?

What if, journalism reports can become so ephemeral that the next election can set aside their findings by those determined to enjoy power no matter what.

What do we say about the power of the press again?

I think we need to also acknowledge that perhaps the same press community has made the electoral return of the undesirable candidate possible.

In which case, the progress we have made in the field of IR must be evaluated in the context of larger institutional failings of the press and the rest of society.

Press freedom protection
does not preclude the obligation to examine the practice of the press, and to shed light on its failure or abdication of responsibility.

A free society matures when it can invoke its own restraints freely. This is best done from within. Only then can we grow to the heights promised by the gift of freedom.

Shuli's visit has been a good reminder.

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