Sunday, March 23, 2014

Watchdog reporting & gotcha journalism

The works of investigative journalists have enabled the porousness of today’s social media or the Internet in general in creating a virtually open source community.
Professor Sheila S. Coronel, Director of the Toni Stabile Center of Investigative Journalism of Columbia University, led an afternoon of interactive and interesting conversation last March 18 at the University of Toronto OISE with a very enlightening presentation on how some of the world’s controversial leaders have been brought down by combing out the vastness of the sea of information about their certain tendencies, weaknesses and penchant for displaying their caché of ill-gotten wealth. Whether it was the number of mansions, luxurious Bentley cars and Patek Philippe watches, or collection of Christian Louboutin and other brands of the most expensive shoes, Prof. Coronel guided the audience through several websites and tools investigative journalists use in tracking down such brazen display of corruption by publicly elected officials or by their wives.

Professor Sheila S. Coronel, Director of  the Toni Stabile Center of Investigative
Journalism of the University of Columbia, discusses how journalists and supporters
of the Kiev protests gathered  and disseminated information against former Ukraine
President Yanukovych that led to his downfall. Photo courtesy of PPCO.
Had my friend, Jesuit priest Terrence Fay, who teaches at the University of Toronto St. Michael’s College and celebrates the 8:30 mass every Sunday morning at our Lady of Lourdes Church on Sherbourne St., stayed a little longer to listen to Prof. Coronel, he would have been amazed by the diminutive Filipino woman as she spoke on how to bring down the powerful and corrupt through the ingenuity of investigative reporting. Our cultural weakness of starting on time and dwelling on unnecessarily long and tedious introductory remarks prevented Fr. Fay from staying, as he also had another book launch to attend that afternoon.
But today’s almost unlimited freedom of the Internet or free press is not without some drawbacks. Censorship is growing through various mechanisms of repression—from “deep packet inspection” hardware that can track unencrypted emails sent, websites and blog posts visited, to the more obvious regulation by government legislation. The Philippines’ newly-minted Cybercrime Prevention Law is one example of how the government can diminish freedom of expression by having the ability to prosecute criminal libel on the pretext of preventing child crimes or sex trafficking in cyberspace. All these attempts are aimed in slowing down the Internet for target users or communities such as investigative journalists, writers and whistleblowers.
In extreme instances where the state or its agents pay lip service to the notion of freedom of the press, journalists and government critics become easy prey of extra-judicial executions and disappearances. The Philippines ranks third in the world among countries with the highest number of journalists killed in this increasingly dangerous line of work.
Also at the heart of the ongoing dichotomy between unfettered freedom of information on one hand and regulation or restriction on the other is the long-standing issue of the individual’s right to privacy. Tabloid journalists by far are the most notorious in sacrificing accuracy and the personal privacy of their subjects in order to boost sales.
In the United States where there is no express constitutional right to privacy, the courts have fashioned out decisions protecting specific aspects of the Bill of Rights such as privacy of beliefs, protection of the home and persons against unreasonable searches, or the privilege against self-incrimination. There is continuing division among justices of the US Supreme Court on the question of a constitutional protection for privacy in ways not expressly provided in the Bill of Rights.
Justices belonging to the school of originalists like Scalia and Thomas have argued that no such general right of privacy exists. On the other hand, other justices argued for a broader reading of the Constitution and took the position of a more liberal interpretation, thus in many ways guarantee a fairly broad right of privacy.
In addition, a legal test of expectation of privacy has been developed over the years in the application of the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution. A long line of precedents has also established that users of the Internet, particularly Google’s Gmail, lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in messages sent using the service. These legal arguments arose out of proceedings against Google in regard of the US Federal Wiretap Act, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, and states’ Invasion of Privacy Acts, making email privacy as nearly impossible.
A guaranteed zone of privacy appears being gradually encroached upon, as further evidenced by Assange’s Wikileaks or Snowden’s leaks about NSA’s eavesdropping and collection of phone data on Americans and some world leaders. With a highly unregulated Internet and a porous social media, anyone nowadays can be a whistleblower or a crusader for the truth. The concept of privacy has become an anachronism in this day and age of computing.
While the right to privacy or at least the expectation of privacy has been losing its lustre in this electronic age, journalists or those who are in the business of investigating the truth are still subject to standards of ethics and of good practice. It’s not just privacy or the search for the truth that matters. Take for example what happened during the exchange after Prof. Coronel had finished her presentation.
Someone from the audience asked Prof. Coronel what should be done when certain journalists have crossed the line of decency and civility in news reporting and opinion writing. People from the back reacted with disconcerting murmurs and jeers about the current mudslinging in the local community press in Toronto.
While the question was not directly related to the ongoing conversation, it brings about legitimate concerns about ethical news reporting and expectations of fairness and civility. Simply put: it is about good manners. This is especially important when a reporter considers the amount of harm that could be caused to the subject of his or her story, or even to the community at large.

Thomas S. Saras, President of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada
shares his experiences about the work of investigative journalists and the challenges
they faced during the March 18 PPCO forum on watchdog reporting. Photo courtesy
of PPCO.
One of the ethical standards every journalist or reporter must uphold is the principle of harm limitation. Does everything a reporter has learned in the investigation of the subject need to be disclosed, and if so, how much? A reporter must also weigh the negative consequences of full disclosure.
The truth is not a runaway train. A reporter must disclose the truth but not necessarily in a way that affects others adversely. Or a reporter must be sensitive with the language he uses and must show good taste in reporting.
It was US President Theodore Roosevelt who popularized the term “muckraker” in a 1906 speech when he acknowledged that "the men with the muck rakes are often indispensable to the well being of society; but only if they know when to stop raking the muck..."
Roosevelt stressed the social benefit of investigative muckraking reporting, but at the same time, he cautioned against the pitfalls of keeping attention only on the mud. He said: “There are, in the body politic, economic and social, many and grave evils, and there is urgent necessity for the sternest war upon them. There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business, or in social life. I hail as a benefactor every writer or speaker, every man who, on the platform, or in book, magazine, or newspaper, with merciless severity makes such attack, provided always that he in his turn remembers that the attack is of use only if it is absolutely truthful.”
These are words that sound relevant to the current crisis of incivility or what many are calling “mudslinging” among members of the Toronto Filipino community press. The fact is this atmosphere of offensiveness is the handiwork of only one reporter, which has spawned a number of unnecessary libel suits against him, and his publisher by extension, by those who felt wronged and defamed. Even a Filipino sitting senator in the Canadian Parliament and his wife have joined the circus, forgetting that a public figure like him is not insulated or immune from criticism, even for work outside the confines of the Parliament.
In sum, this crisis in our community reflects on us all. It shows the level of maturity of our community leaders, the professionalism of our so-called local journalists, and the “egg-shell” protective lining of their egos. If one salvo of criticism would easily shatter their self-image, then they should avoid the public limelight where the most private account of human affairs could be dissected and disseminated like perennial fodder to a gossiping crowd.
The investigative journalists in our midst have gone berserk by exposing what they believe could destroy some individuals in our community, without regard to the total harm their reportage could cause. Two months from now and just in time with the celebration of Philippine independence day, leaders from every corner of our community would be appealing from their own soap boxes for support to the same cultural activities that brought this crisis upon the community: beauty pageants and contests. Meanwhile, the litigants in the various libel suits will continue testing the limits of freedom of expression, as if the courts are the best venue to redress their bruised egos.
Perhaps, if our journalists can be the true watchdogs of our community, they should train their investigative skills on the real and substantial impact of activities like beauty contests in promoting and enriching our cultural heritage. Instead of coddling the promoters of these inanities and simply requiring them to show transparency in the accounting of the monies they raised.
What have these beauty contests contributed in conveying our culture to our Filipino community in Toronto and the Canadian society at large? So far, in addition to treating our women as commodities, we also take pride in being sour dueling libelists, which keeps us in the muck, and only brings utter disgrace to our rich heritage and culture.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

America’s duplicity

The current crisis in Ukraine, or more particularly in the Crimean peninsula, has become a conundrum that is both as old and as new as the issue of self-determination. To the United States and Europe, Crimea is but a smokescreen for Russian invasion.
Sevastopol in Crimea is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet since 1783, thus emphasizing the great strategic military value of the peninsula to the Russians. Crimea has also strong historical and ethnic ties to Russia or to the old Soviet Union before Khrushchev gave it up to Ukraine, and its population predominantly speak Russian as their language.
The Black Sea and Sevastopol, home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Photo courtesy of
Now the pro-Russian regional Parliament in Crimea has voted to hold a referendum on whether to secede from Ukraine and become part of the Russian Federation, a decision immediately condemned by the United States and Europe as a violation of the constitution of Ukraine and international law. Ignoring sanctions like suspension of negotiations on wide-ranging political-economic issues, travel bans, asset seizures and cancellation of a planned E.U.-Russia summit meeting, Russia appears to be tightening its grip over Crimea and testing the political will of the West, especially the United States.
Whether the proposed referendum has legal grounds is certainly problematic even though Article 73 of the Ukrainian constitution provides that altering the territory of Ukraine must be resolved exclusively by an All-Ukrainian referendum. Reality is not merely a cut-and-dried constitutional issue. Attempts toward secession in other countries have shown that it also requires recognition by other states and a form of negotiation between the seceding territory and the central government.
For instance, on the issue of Quebec’s referendum for secession in 1998, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that neither the Quebec government nor its legislature has the legal right under Canadian constitutional law or under international law to unilaterally secede from Canada. The court however emphasized that the rest of Canada would have a political obligation to negotiate Quebec’s separation if a clear majority of that province’s population voted in favour of it. This has reinforced the belief of the separatist Parti Quebecois that the people of Quebec have a legitimate aspiration for independence based on the authority of a mandate from the people. Although Quebec’s secession from Canada did not materialize when the Parti Quebecois lost in the referendum, the dream of an independent Quebec continues.
Scotland is also voting for independence from the United Kingdom in September 2014. The British government has agreed to hold the referendum and the prospect of a separate Scotland is already dividing many citizens in the UK. In the Philippines, the proposed Bangsamoro nation that was brokered by the Aquino administration with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is about to be tabled in Congress despite attempts by renegade groups like the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) to derail the peace process. The Bangsamoro framework agreement entails carving out an autonomous region for Filipino Muslims in Mindanao that will alter the entire breadth of the Philippine territory. There are those who argue that this is only possible by amending the Constitution. Consider, too, that the referendum to ratify the Bangsamoro law is at least about two years away.
While Crimea is an autonomous republic in Ukraine, with its own powers under the Ukrainian constitution, its secession could depend not necessarily on the legal provisions of the national constitution, but also on the mandate of its people as determined through a popular referendum. The United States and Europe could raise their objection on whatever legal or moral grounds but in the end it is the people of Crimea who will decide their fate.
A rally backing Russia in Sevastopol in Crimea. Photo by Viktor Drachev/
Agence-France-Presse--Getty Images.
Instead of conducting the Crimean referendum under duress of Russian military occupation, Russia’s willingness to negotiate with the Ukrainian parliament for a genuine referendum could probably soften Crimea’s impending secession. Just like in the Quebec secession where the Canadian Supreme Court for the first time introduced the concept of a constitutional duty to negotiate, absent any provision in the Constitution or in international law authorizing secession by a part or territory of a state. Or as in the ongoing negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF for a separate Bangsamoro government, which ultimately aims to establish a separate state within an existing state. In the final analysis, whatever the Crimean people choose—whether to secede from Ukraine or join the Russian Federation—must be respected. Of course, this is easier said than done.
The trouble with the United States and Europe which have denounced the legality of the Crimea referendum is their inconsistency and double-standard policy when it comes to the struggle for self-determination of countries or states not belonging to their political bloc.

In 1999, the United States supported Kosovo’s bid for secession from Serbia while Moscow saw it as an infringement of Serbia’s sovereignty. Kosovo ultimately gained independence in 2008.

Now 15 years later, the US and Russia are at odds again, but they have switched sides. Russia supports Crimea’s right to break off from Ukraine while the United States calls it illegitimate, a showdown that revives a long-drawn debate over the right of self-determination versus the territorial integrity of nation-states.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who was duly elected, was ousted by a coup. No matter how you describe it, it was a demonstration supported by the West as a protest against a pro-Russian dictator. Yanukovych was seen as anti-Europe when he abandoned a trade agreement with the European Union. After fleeing Kiev and showing up in Moscow seeking help from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian troops took over Crimea on the pretext that they were protecting Russian interests in the region.
This double-standard policy was evident during the crises in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The United States supported the public demonstrations and protests against the corrupt and repressive governments of these countries only to cuddle the succeeding regimes which are equally repressive and even more corrupt. American foreign policy plays favourites with repressive and not-so-democratic countries like Pakistan by pouring in millions of dollars in military assistance to fight the Taliban, yet it condemns repression in Iran and North Korea which happen to fall outside its circle of allies.
Duality or duplicity in American foreign relations was already evident two hundred years ago when the US forced Spain to agree to a treaty that extended American frontiers. Yet, John Quincy Adams who helped draft the Monroe Doctrine said: “We are friends of liberty all over the world, but we do not go abroad in search for monsters to destroy.” Exactly what the Americans are doing now in Ukraine, in the never-ending Middle East conflict, and in the simmering dispute between China and its neighbours over some islands and rock formations on the China Sea.
The United States has used the Monroe Doctrine in authorizing intervention against aggression by other countries, yet at the same time the doctrine espoused neither interference nor meddling in the internal concerns of other countries. The Iraq invasion and the Gulf War are recent examples of the application of the Monroe Doctrine with a little tweak—by involving the support of American allies. Afghanistan’s invasion could also qualify under the umbrella of the Monroe Doctrine except that it was a response to the war on terror, a new twist in justifying American intervention.
Last November 2013, US Secretary of State John Kerry told the Organization of American States (OAS) that that the Monroe Doctrine was dead. Not really true. While Kerry was apparently calling for mutual partnership with other countries in the Americas, it was essentially in keeping with Monroe’s initial message than with the policies the US government had enacted long after Monroe’s death. Noam Chomsky called the Monroe Doctrine as America’s endearing rationale for declaring hegemony and the right of unilateral intervention all at the same time.
Crimea’s future has already been sealed. It will eventually join the Russian Federation despite censure from Ukraine, the United States and its allies in Europe. Sanctions against Russia will probably intensify but in the end will not matter much.
Vladimir Putin and the Russian Army are marching ahead towards gradual partitioning of the countries that used to be satellites of the old Soviet regime and picking up one territory after another. Will Putin be able to restore Russia’s superpower status which it lost during the end of the Cold War in the 1990s?
It’s still too early to say. The Crimean crisis or the ongoing disputes among other countries elsewhere in the world, however, clearly indicate that at the heart of all these tensions is a much broader conflict. It is not about the quarrel between the smaller protagonists, i.e., between Crimea and Ukraine, or Bangsamoro and the Philippine national government, or between those for or against Scottish independence.
This could be what Samuel Huntington called the emergence of a “multipolar” world, where the United States hangs on as the only superpower but must now come to terms with other regional powers who resent interference in their own spheres of influence, whether by the United States alone or with its coalition of the willing.