More and more, Latin American journalism is thriving in the digital space.
"In today's world, journalists spend more time in the virtual world than in the paper stacks," said Carlos Eduardo Huertas, director of Connectas, a nonprofit which supports transnational journalism.
At the same time, press freedom is often threatened in many countries in the region, and reporters often lack the skills they need to keep their files and themselves safe.
A veteran investigative journalist from Colombia, Huertas is helping to channel these trends into the four-year-long Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas. The project, which began in June, is training journalists in eight countries how to use investigative journalism tools and techniques, as well as in personal and digital security. (Disclosure: The project is administered by the International Center for Journalists, which is IJNet’s parent organization.)
The project also supports a number of investigative stories. Already, its journalists have broken stories about corrupt building projects in Paraguay; drug trafficking in the Caribbean, Costa Rica and El Salvador; and illegal immigration to Panama.
Huertas talked with IJNet about why cross-border reporting is essential in Latin America right now and the role technology plays in investigative journalism today.
IJNet: Why is it important that investigative journalists from different countries collaborate?
Huertas: Journalists in the 21st century are marked by two features that the Initiative highlights. The first is that they are professionals who are able to direct the focus on the facts so as to understand the reasons and hyperlocal impact, and they also make it possible to understand what is happening in a broader context, such as the region or even globally. The second is the [willingness and ability to collaborate].
Latin America is an excellent setting for working on these two fronts. Not only because of the obvious advantages of having a common language, history and culture, but because many of the things that are changing the reality on the continent are cross-border, from organized crime to the main trends in investment in the region. It is time for journalists to use this perspective to address these issues that for years have been neglected in the media.
IJNet: Why is training in investigative journalism vital in Latin America right now?
Huertas: This is a vibrant time for democracy in the region. Since the fall of the [regions'] military regimes, in some cases only a few decades ago, people have been empowered and are participating more, so that state institutions become stronger and the rule of law and well-being prevail.
On this road to consolidation, it is essential that the citizens have access to independent, authoritative information that reveals the truths that are of interest for the common good, which the power brokers would rather keep hidden. This is precisely the job of investigative journalism. Honing the skills of journalists in the region and providing resources for the production of such stories are at the heart of the Investigative Reporting Initiative in the Americas.
IJNet: Tell us about some of the investigations already underway.
Huertas: Thanks to the Initiative, reports have been published in Paraguay that revealed a string of irregularities and corruption behind a series of half-built sports facilities. We have also revealed how a handful of islands, legally adjudicated by governments in the Caribbean, are used to transport narcotics. Along the same line, we have showed how shipping companies in El Salvador and Costa Rica work with drug traffickers to move their goods. And we have uncovered how excursion tourism is used as the facade for a massive influx of Nicaraguan migrants into Panama that has turned this country into the meeting place for a massive diaspora.
IJNet: What role do new factors like mobile technology and data play in investigative journalism in the region?
Huertas: They are fundamental. In today's world, journalists spend more time in the virtual world than in the paper stacks. This means improving skills in using information technology for better newsgathering for the stories, and finding other sources that previously were impossible to identify. The same applies to the relationship between journalists and their readers. In this area, for example, interaction through mobile technologies enhances the work of the media. The Initiative, for example, has a innovative strategy along this line for the upcoming general election in Panama.
IJNet: What are the key tools these journalists are or will be using in their reporting?
Huertas: The first is the Spanish version of the Investigative Dashboard. This is a website developed by OCCRP, the partner organization in Eastern Europe, specialized in tracking money transnationally. It uses a combination of online components, such as access to over 400 business databases worldwide, and several teams specialized in data management. Connectas is in charge of this component in the Initiative.
The other is the Safe Collaboration Platform that enables journalists to work together online with high level protection to minimize the risk of having sensitive communications between journalists leaked, particularly for joint and transnational reports.
IJNet: Tell us more about the Initiative’s upcoming work in Panama.
Huertas: It is clear that electoral periods are definitive in the relationship between the media and the public. People need quality information for making decisions that affect their future. For the elections on May 4 in Panama, the Initiative has brought together the major media in this country, in alliance with organizations for journalism, to work with the tools of the digital era. For example, members of the public will send reports about incidents through mobile devices for the journalists to investigate and report. We will have a webpage where the public may see the candidates' power relations. [The page will use connection-mapping platform Poderopedia.] And we will work with a specialist for different reports, as part of focusing on training the reporting teams in information management.
IJNet Editorial Assistant Margaret Looney writes about the latest media trends, reporting tools and journalism resources.