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Oscar-winning ‘Spotlight’ through Filipino eyes

/ 11:27 PM March 01, 2016

The movie “Spotlight,” which just won this year’s Oscar for best picture, had a short run and did not get much attention in Manila, according to a friend.

That’s unfortunate.

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“Spotlight” is a powerful, engrossing film that’s so relevant to Filipinos, on two levels.

The movie dramatizes how a team of Boston Globe reporters exposed the way the Catholic Church systematically covered up the way hundreds of priests abused children.

The investigative report had a global impact as the movie noted at the end. Before the final credits roll, the film lists the cities, towns and countries where priests were later exposed for abusing children. The Philippines is one of them.

This isn’t news.

When the Boston Globe broke the story in 2002, it quickly triggered investigations in other countries, including the Philippines. That year, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines acknowledged that hundreds of its priest may have been guilty of “sexual misconduct,” including child abuse, over the past 20 years.

The controversy just kept getting bigger.

In 2012, the Vatican suspended Monsignor Cristobal Garcia over allegations that he abused children when he was based in the United States.

The scandal even became part of the Philippine presidential race when Mayor Rodrigo Duterte said an American Jesuit priest at the Ateneo De Davao molested him when he was a teenager.

The church paid a huge sum to settle the case — and apparently to keep it quiet.

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The scandal hasn’t gone away and isn’t going away. And “Spotlight” gives Filipinos an engaging look at how it was first exposed by a team of dogged reporters.

In fact, the film underscores the power of journalism in exposing the abuses of powerful institutions and individuals.

Which makes “Spotlight” also relevant to the Philippines as it wrestles with its own evolving media landscape.

The film, which stars Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, has highlighted the importance of investigative journalism. “Spotlight” has actually been compared to “All The President’s Men, the 1976 film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, about how two reporters broke the key stories around the Watergate Scandal.

“‘Spotlight’ gets the journalism right — the tedium, the obstacles, the stress, the sense of being mired in a story without fully grasping it,” Jim Bettinger, director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford writes. “The perseverance. The doors slammed in your face. The unexpected revelation that unlocks a different door. And the magnitude of the endeavor.”

Investigative journalism is not a uniquely American tradition of course. The Philippines also has a proud tradition of investigative journalism that has exposed cases of corruption and the abuse of power, from the Philippine Center of Investigative Journalism’s expose on former President Joseph Estrada’s mistresses’ mansions to the Inquirer’s reports on the pork barrel scandal.

But “Spotlight” points to challenges ahead. The movie was released at a time when local investigative journalism in the U.S. is under siege. American newspapers, long the backbone of the U.S. media, have taken a beating from a dramatic drop in ad revenue and sharp job cuts.

“Well, we’re a profession that’s under tremendous pressure, a lot of financial pressure,” Marty Baron, the Boston Globe editor portrayed in the film by Liev Schieber, told PBS Newshour. “And yet we have to commit ourselves to doing it. Somebody needs to hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable, and we’re the ones who have that particular role in our society.”

Philippine media faces similar challenges. There are always economic pressures. There have been attempts to curb free expression, including on the Web, and the Philippines remains on the list of the most dangerous countries for journalists.

The struggle to make government more accountable and transparent, highlighted by a push for a Freedom of Information law, has stalled, after the effort was essentially abandoned by the Aquino administration.

I have friends in the Philippine media who I know are seeking to inspire a new generation of journalists to take on an increasingly tough job.

They could have gotten some needed help from an Oscar-winning film that stresses the important work reporters do.

As journalist Stephen Engelberg, editor of Pro Publica, told PBS Newshour, “I think the movie’s going to inspire more people. I have been talking on journalism schools, at campuses lately, and people who have seen that movie find it very inspiring, as do I. I think it’s just a great example of what we can do when journalists do the job that they need to do in our society.”

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TAGS: “Spotlight, ” Oscar best picture ’16, Boston Globe, Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, Catholic Church, Catholic priests child abuse, director of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship, investigative journalism, Jim Bettinger, Pro Publica
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