Vitug told the IWMF: “The Courage Award gave me a mantle of protection. It was a big, joyful boost! Sometimes, we need moments like this, to reassure us that we’re doing good work. I felt safe because of the international attention it gave me. I knew that people would think twice before doing me harm.”
Later in 1991, she began expanding her articles and investigations into a book, The Politics of Logging: Power from the Forest, which was published in 1993 and won the Philippines’ National Book Award.
A lawsuit against her was dropped five years after it was filed and the timber tycoon moved to Vietnam where he took up car manufacturing – “and maybe logging,” said Vitug.
The stories she wrote, the ensuing lawsuit over them and the international recognition that she garnered because of them taught her a lot, said Vitug. “When you’re trying to do a good job, all you have to do is stand by your instincts and your values. It was very inspiring to me,” she said.
Vitug is recognized as a pioneering environmental reporter in a country where huge vested interests control the bulk of the land. Before winning the 1991 Courage Award, she was awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1986-1987 and in 1990 she took a degree in international relations from the London School of Economics.
Since winning the award, she has written two more books. The latest, Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao, published in 2000, explored the Muslim rebellion in the Philippines.
Also in 2000, she co-founded a fortnightly investigative magazine, Newsbreak. The magazine was developed after a group of businessmen approached Vitug and two journalist colleagues, offering to bankroll a web magazine. “They were unhappy with the state of reportage in the country,” Vitug said.
The journalists liked the idea but opted to do both a hard-copy magazine and the website. The businessmen put up a subsidy but the journalists also raised their own funds and went after foundation grants.
Raising the bulk of the money helped them ensure their editorial independence, she said. One advertiser, a state-owned corporation, pulled out after accusing the magazine of being critical of the government.
“They’re not used to any [critical commentary],” said Vitug. “It’s such a feudal society. It’s a challenge to show we can exist as truly independent journalists with no agenda.”
The magazine, which has a “small but quite influential” circulation of 10,000, has an editorial team of 12, including a photographer and artists and a part-time copy editor. They put out 40 pages every two weeks.
Some of the staffers came from existing newspapers but Vitug and her owner-colleagues are training two from scratch. She has also begun an annual internship where journalism students do research and learn the ropes of investigative reporting. Vitug said she expects the magazine to break even by 2005, their fifth year in operation.
At the time she won the Courage Award, Vitug assumed that she’d keep on writing books. “Then I got derailed by this magazine. And I’m glad. I enjoy it,” she said. “In writing books, you’re alone. … I realize I get so much fulfillment from working with young journalists, and seeing them go out on their own and be inspired by us, the elders.”
Vitug, now 49, says she and the co-founders of the magazine also “hope we can set some ethical standards for journalism” in a society that is full of vested interests.
During the first year on the market, Newsbreak won a prize for a story about a mayor who allegedly used public funds to enrich himself. “We looked at the budget of the city and tried to see where the money went. He had bought a lot of properties during his term as mayor and he has no other business,” she said.
The reaction to the story was, in general, disappointing to Vitug and her colleagues. While they garnered praise from some people, others saw the mayor “as a good mayor and say he is able to take care of them. So they don’t seem to mind if he gets [money on the side].”
In recent years, Newsbreak has broken stories about the Catholic Church, which has enormous influence in the Philippines. The first story was about a priest who had a secret family. As a result, the priest was banished overseas. “That really put us in trouble. We were criticized for that,” said Vitug.
The next major story was about “a high-ranking bishop who sexually abused employees. He resigned his post and left for ‘vacation,’ ” she said.
In addition to her demanding magazine schedule, Vitug remains on the board of an independent investigative reporting group she helped found. She is also concerned about issues facing the Philippines, which include the formidable economic gap between rich and poor, an economy marred by political meddling and the continuing Muslim rebellion in the region. There is also the fact that seven million Filipinos have left the country since the 1970s.
All of these issues engage Vitug, but her passion remains investigative journalism and Newsbreak. The challenge, she said, is “for us to stay afloat for a longer time – and show the market and tell the public that good journalism sells.”
Marites Vitug is the first IWMF Courage in Journalism Award winner from Philippines.
- Courage in Journalism Awards Awardee, 1991