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Hither and Yon

Asian corruption: Despite investigative reporting exposés, it’s still going gangbusters

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
MANILA — The title was alluring: “The First Asian Investigative Journalism Conference.”
For two days, experts regaled journalists from all over Asia on how to track down the secret stories, the purloined funds, the hidden wealth of the high and mighty in countries and economies ranging from Pakistan and India to Southeast Asia and on to China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan.
There is, however, a problem. The more the sleuths of journalism uncover, whether by recondite searches of the Internet or by going through copious paper records or accosting their targets in person, the more we hear of corruption and influence-peddling.
The journalists wrapped up the first day of the conference with a “candle light gathering for the international day of impunity” honoring “hundreds of slain journalists.”
From the hotel where we were meeting, it was a short walk to Edsa, the 12-lane Epifanio De Los Santos, where I had seen hundreds of thousands of people massing in January and February 1986 in the heady days of “People Power” against the long ruling Ferdinand Marcos and his grasping wife, Imelda.
By now, however, “People Power” has receded into the miasma of Philippine history. Mercenary charlatans have gone on killing and looting with impunity. The widow Imelda, her son and two daughters are long back from exile in Hawaii, where I interviewed Marcos for USA Today shortly before he died in 1986.
No amount of journalistic or legalistic detective work could compel Imelda to surrender the billions she amassed in Swiss bank accounts. Her son “Bong Bong,” having served as a senator and governor of Marcos’ home province, is a contender for the presidency to succeed Benigno Aquino III — son of Corazon Aquino, the widow of the slain Benigno Aquino, who wrested power from Marcos at the height of People Power.
When I asked Sheila Coronel, who wrote extensively on corruption in the Philippines in that period, how much difference the exposure of the evils of the Marcos years had really made, she had a simple answer. Now a Columbia J-School professor, she advised me not to expect “linear progression.” Rather, she said, “two steps forward and one step backward” would be more realistic.
Fair enough, but the most revealing records by investigative journalists, skilled though they are in high-tech ways to extract details and factoids, say as much about what they’re missing as what they find.
One of the more intriguing panelists was Kim Yong-Jin, long-time iconoclastic investigator for KBS, now editor-in-chief of the Korean Center for Investigative Journalism. In one panel, he showed in power-point graphic detail how his team at KCIJ had uncovered the hidden wealth of Chun Doo-Hwan after the former president, one of Korea’s last military leaders, had claimed he had only a dollar to his name.
Great, but what about the wealth of other Korean presidents, and what of the flow of funds among top politicos and bosses and family members of the mighty chaebol that dominate the Korean economy?
Kim Yong-Jin said he too would like to know about all that, but realistically we’re only getting the tip of the iceberg.
For that matter, Kim’s presentation, in another panel, of the work by his center on the abysmal failure of the media to report accurately on the tragedy befalling the passengers of the Sewol as it was sinking in April was also frustratingly incomplete.
Yes, he nailed the ineptitude of the reporting and the tragic failure of the Korean Coast Guard and other nearby vessels to come to the rescue. No, he did not seem too interested when I asked about Part II of the Sewol story — revelations that came out in the bitter aftermath of the mysterious corporate and religious ties of the owner, his extended family and senior employees, including the captain and crew that abandoned the ship and its doomed passengers.
Kim seemed to think “everyone knew about that,” but the story of the owner and his family was unknown to most people, Korean and foreign. The troubling question is how many other corrupt owners and families routinely escape scrutiny, out of reach of the law, much less the media.
The person who had the most to do with organizing the conference, David Kaplan, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, co-authored a book years ago on Japan’s yakuza gangsters. The book came out ten years after I had written an article on the yakuza for the New York Times Magazine — “Crime, Politics and Finger-Chopping.”
The yakuza are more deeply involved with Japan’s rightist government than ever. Corrupt politicians dominate the Philippines power structure. Korea’s conservative leaders survive in cozy alliance with the chaebol fostered by President Park Geun-Hye’s father, the late President Park Chung-Hee. The appropriate subtitle of this conference on “investigative reporting” might have been, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Columnist Donald Kirk is author of “Looted: the Philippines After the Bases” and “Philippines in Crisis: U.S. Power versus Local Revolt” as well as books on Korean business and politics. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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