KASAMA Vol. 23 No. 3 / July-August-September-October 2009 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

An Investigative Homecoming

By Alex Tizon

Suriin ang Kahirapan Map

I am an American journalist here in the Philippines to work on a ground-breaking media project involving the poorest of the poor. I’d like to tell you about it. But I’d be lying if I said I was here only as an altruist. I’m also here for selfish reasons: to experience life in the country where I was born.

My mother, a Tarlaqueño, gave birth to me right here in Manila. When I was still a toddler, she and my father, a Kapampangan, whisked the family off to the United States where I spent most of the next 45 years. During that time, I became an American in speech, manner and worldview, but the Philippines always called to me.

I longed for a way to return.

This year, I got my wish in the best possible package: as a one-year journalism fellowship to work with the best investigative reporters in the Philippines. My mission was to help implement a new project called Suriin Ang Kahirapan. “Suriin ang kahirapan” is Tagalog for “Audit of Poverty.”

The project is the brainchild of the Philippine Center For Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), a non-profit media organization that specializes in investigative reporting. PCIJ would be my hosts during the fellowship.

The center is known throughout Asia and investigative-reporting circles in the West as a journalistic powerhouse willing to take on the biggest and baddest players (just ask President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and former President Joseph Estrada) and the toughest issues.

No national issue is tougher, more relevant and more perplexing than chronic poverty — especially in the country’s most remote provinces. These are places to which even the most resourceful journalists seldom travel. We’re talking about places deep in the mountains or in the middle of jungles or on isolated islands with no airports.

Last year, PCIJ came up with a novel idea: how about creating a way to let the people of these provinces tell their own stories? Let them tell us why poverty programs aren’t working. Let them tell us what their lives are like. Most importantly, let them give us clues to what might bring about real change.

“Suriin Ang Kahirapan” was born. The project turns the conventional journalism method on its head. In traditional journalism, reporters come up with story ideas and then gather information from various sources, including persons with first-hand knowledge.

The core idea behind “Suriin” is to encourage persons with first-hand knowledge — in this case, residents of the country’s five poorest provinces — to come up with story ideas themselves. PCIJ would train them how to gather information and present their findings in a cohesive way.

This practice of encouraging stories to originate from the people, or the masses, is known in journalism circles as “crowd sourcing.” As far as I can tell, “Suriin” would be the first large-scale crowd-sourcing project in the Philippines.

The project will make full use of the Internet and high-tech communications to create and sustain a partnership between PCIJ and the local residents who want to participate. The residents will act as the eyes and ears of PCIJ. Who better to tell us what is really going on in these remote places than the people who live there? And PCIJ will make sure that the most relevant information will be shared with the larger public.

With this new conduit, ordinary people can share their perspectives. And beyond that, new stories can be told, government programs can be monitored, and public officials and powerful businessmen can be held accountable.

A resident in a small seaside town in Masbate can tell us why Road A was not finished, why Program B did not work, why Congressman C should be investigated and Citizen D commended. The possibilities are almost limitless. The resulting stories and reports will be posted on a new “Suriin Ang Kahirapan” website, which will act as the primary forum. After a set of face-to-face introductory meetings in the provinces, communication with our partners will be maintained through email and quarterly online chats. It’s all so 21st century.

The PCIJ staffer in charge of “Suriin” is a veteran journalist and researcher, Rowena ‘Weng’ Paraan. Weng and I have made preliminary trips to three of the Suriin provinces: Zamboanga del Norte, Masbate and Agusan del Sur. The project’s reception has been enthusiastic. The people of the provinces seem raring to go.

These trips into the country’s wild and remote edges have been eye-opening for me. And intense. Everywhere we have traveled we met people on the verge of losing everything, including livelihood and life. For too many people in the Philippines, every single day is a struggle to survive.

I plan on writing about some of these people in regular written dispatches. It will be a kind of traveler’s column, where I will share stories and observations. It’ll also be a pocket version of Notes From a Native Son, because that is what I am — a native son who has come to learn about his homeland.

These dispatches will also include encounters with some extraordinary people, individuals with passion and drive and courage — courage against long odds. The journalists who make up PCIJ belong in this category. Their work inspires me.

And they are exposing me to a whole other dimension of the Filipino experience. I’m here to observe and to take it all in. I spent 45 years learning to be an American. I have 12 months to remember what it means to be Filipino.

ALEX TIZON, Knight Fellow, International Center for Journalists, and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, September 2009

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