While he wouldn’t exactly call himself shy, he admits to being taken aback by the attention lavished on him this year. Robert Chesal, journalist at Radio Netherlands Worldwide, had already found himself at the centre of a buzz of publicity when he won De Loep – a Dutch award for investigative journalism – with Joep Dohmen of Dutch daily NRC Handelsblad.
As of 9 December Mr Chesal can add the title “Journalist of the Year” to his CV, a distinction he once again shares with Joep Dohmen. The award comes from Villamedia, a magazine and website for Dutch journalists. So the level of attention focused on him has been magnified yet again.
Robert Chesal (1965) admits to experiencing a slightly odd sense of unease at being named Journalist of the Year. But above all, he sees it as an honour, especially since the award represents recognition by his colleagues, something to which he attaches great value. Yet in many ways, the prize has not come out of the blue. Robert freely acknowledges a healthy dose of ambition, a trait that was with him from an early age.
From sports to social issues
He certainly regards the level of recognition he is now enjoying as a childhood dream come true. Robert, who hails from the United States, dreamt as a boy of being a TV reporter for American football games. He took that particular ambition as far as the sports editorship of the school newspaper. Later he developed a greater interest in social issues.
In the mid 1980s, Mr Chesal came to the Netherlands as a student and met his future wife. In 1991 he started work for Radio Netherlands Worldwide, initially as a freelancer combining his RNW activities with work for the BBC, Voice of America and Deutsche Welle. It was only later that he focused exclusively on his work at RNW. Even at this stage of his career, he was no stranger to awards. In 1993 he took home a New York Festival prize -in collaboration with David Swatling- for the radio documentary Yours Anne, Love Zlata and he scored again at the same festival in 2002 with The War on Terror, the Struggle for Oil.
Now Robert Chesal has teamed up with NRC journalist Joep Dohmen for months of investigation into the hidden story of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in the Netherlands. They discovered, in line with previous revelations in other countries, that the abuse took on the proportions of a widespread scandal. Chesal and Dohmen found themselves on the trail of the abuse in the Netherlands after listening to one victim recount his ordeal.
One by one, other victims found the courage to tell their stories. “Keeping this issue in the spotlight ensures that it cannot be swept under the carpet,” says Mr Chesal. He goes on to acknowledge that being confronted with so many harrowing accounts of traumatic experiences can take its toll. It's important to step back from the work where possible or confide in people who are not directly involved. Robert says he was able to put his own position in perspective by continually reminding himself that it paled into insignificance compared with what the victims themselves had been through.
Chesal and Dohmen received considerable praise for their approach to the issue of abuse in the Church. But there were also negative reactions to deal with. The reporters found themselves dismissed as anti-papists and accused of embarking on a witch hunt against the Church. Their work was hammered as being biased and sensationalist. Robert remains philosophical about such responses: “There will always be people who take a selective view of your work.”
Robert is currently in the Caribbean, carrying out research into Church abuses on the Caribbean island of Curaçao, which forms part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. He has been in touch with a number of victims there. A series of articles on the issue are scheduled for publication in January.
Robert Chesal is appreciative of the scope that RNW has given him to pursue his activities as an investigative journalist. “But,” he warns, “we have to raise our ambitions and not underestimate the power of a news item. We need to realise that we often have something of immense value in our hands.”
The Journalist of the Year award will be presented in January.