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Interrogating power

The most invigorating feeling of working the beat is not proximity to, but interrogating, power: those who have it, and what they do, or don’t, with it.
/ 05:17 AM December 09, 2019

It was my first day on the job, and Malacañang was reeling.

Then Vice President Jejomar Binay’s youngest daughter, Abigail, had hand-delivered a letter to the Palace indicating her father’s abrupt resignation from President Benigno Aquino III’s Cabinet—obvious posturing ahead of his own 2016 run for President, but a bombshell nonetheless.

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In relinquishing his posts as housing czar and presidential adviser on overseas Filipino workers, Binay could finally, fully embrace his role as critic in chief, and he wasted no time. The word war that ensued between the country’s two highest officials would consume Malacañang for days.

Hooked

In hindsight, the episode appears almost quaint compared to the near daily scandals roiling the current administration. But as a wide-eyed, 19-year-old intern of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, it was my first taste of being caught in the dazzling rush of a developing story. I was hooked.

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Over the next month, guided by a cadre of veteran reporters—Nikko Dizon, Jaymee Gamil and Erika Sauler—I navigated the strange universe of a newspaper journalist, which was anywhere from the Palace’s gleaming briefing room to the musky basement of the Quezon City courthouse.

Dizon and I were covering a trade seminar, where then President Aquino gave a perfectly mundane speech, when chatter arose that he might grant an interview about Malacañang’s Binay problem. He did, bemoaning having treated his No. 2 as a “member of the official family.”

It was thrilling to be standing within a foot of the President. But over the course of my internship, and now as a reporter, I have found that the most invigorating feeling is not proximity to, but the act of interrogating power—those who have it, and the things they do, or don’t, with it.

This power, as I learned, could manifest in different forms. There’s the obvious power of elected officials. But there’s also the everyday, equally invidious power bestowed by flawed systems unto people in our homes, schools and communities.

People like those in the Upsilon Sigma Phi fraternity.

I studied at the University of the Philippines (UP), and in the summer of my 2015 internship, the campus was rocked by frat-related violence between Upsilon and Alpha Sigma members that left four students nearly dead.

I covered one of the court hearings for the five alleged assailants, all UP students not much older than I was then. The hearing was ultimately postponed, but a lawyer for the suspects spoke with us, accusing the UP police of planting evidence in the getaway van his clients were caught in.

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The subsequent story—my first byline in Inquirer—was an exercise in employing both the skepticism and fairness needed to present their side. But it was also an early lesson on why we must be scrupulously fair when the characters in our stories are not competing on a level playing field.

Extra skepticism

Power allows a built-in advantage. It merits a healthy dose of extra skepticism.

Days later, I would find myself at a banquet hall in Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, after the change of command ceremony for then newly installed chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Hernando Iriberri.

Looming over the air of celebration in the room, however, were allegations against the AFP that were revealed in a Senate hearing days earlier, where a whistleblower alleged that top military officials had received kickbacks from the suppliers of new helicopters.

The rule of thumb, Dizon told me, was to make sure that before you sat down to write, you had all the evidence. Not all whistleblowers were clean, she added, and on the flip side, not every government official was tainted. You needed to look at all sides.

I would come to realize that this was one of the greatest luxuries about working for a newspaper. The euphoria of the deadline is, no doubt, a staple. But the few extra hours we got each day to make a story more thorough, and by extension, more truthful, could make a world of difference.

Distinct energy

In truth, when I first entered journalism school, my internship prospects were fluid. A magazine, I thought then, sounded enticing. TV reporting seemed like a solid option. Online news, too, was promising. I considered everything—everything, that is, except interning for a broadsheet.

Naturally, that was exactly where I ended up (as an intern and, now, an employee for three years). But there was a distinct energy in print journalism that I would come to cherish.

Much has changed since that first internship day—for one, the elder Binay, seen then as an unstoppable electoral force, has gone on to lose both a presidential and congressional bid. A different President and Vice President are now similarly tussling over a Cabinet position.

But the need to speak truth to power—fairly and fearlessly —remains more urgent than ever.

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