Digging for Dirt: Sheila Coronel

Philippine journalist Sheila Coronel’s relentless investigative reporting had already earned her enemies when a man, who identified himself only by his first name, phoned her, saying he had some interesting information.

She was to go to a Manila hotel lobby, pick up a slip of paper with his license-plate number, find his car, and meet him there. She was to come alone. Many journalists would have blanched at the idea. Coronel took out her notebook and went to the hotel.  

On another occasion, a judge suspected of corruption refused to take her calls. She went to his office, where his secretary told her the judge was too busy to see her. Coronel sat in his waiting room for the rest of the day, refusing to leave until he saw her. Coronel calls most of what she does—sorting through business, government, and court records—“tedious.”  The long hours of unglamorous work paid off when Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo presented her with the coveted 2003 Ramón Magsaysay Award for journalism in an Aug. 31 ceremony in Manila.

Now 45, Coronel was a cub reporter for Philippine Panorama in August 1983. The assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino that month brought millions of Filipinos into the streets to protest Ferdinand Marcos’ rule. Coronel was covering the demonstrations from a car emblazoned with the name of her newspaper. Several times, angry crowds surrounded the car and pelted it with stones. “Write the truth!” they shouted. “Write what you see!”

The experience left an impression on Coronel. In 1986, the People Power revolution finally brought Marcos’ rule—and with it, the government’s tight lid on the press—to an end. Later, Coronel’s uncompromising reporting for The Manila Times and then for the Manila Chronicle established her reputation as a rising star of journalism.

As a reporter, Coronel had to file three or four stories a day, she told Bangkok’s The Nation. “There was not enough time to do in-depth research, or for reflection and thought about issues that matter.” So in 1989, with eight other journalists, she founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ).

Officials soon learned that they ignored PCIJ’s reporting at their peril. It probed military attempts to overthrow former President Corazon Aquino. It exposed corruption in the courts, the Cabinet, and newsrooms. Evidence it found of former President Joseph Estrada’s corruption helped remove him from power in 2001.

Coronel shrugs off her accolades. “Investigation is not a glamorous job,” she said in an interview with The Nation. “It takes a lot of patience and hard work.” Still, she told Bangkok’s Burmese-exile monthly The Irrawaddy, the work is important: “The press has to be continually vigilant,...and the media community should band together to defend its freedom.”