Journalistic platform to investigate crimes of social leaders and fate of former FARC rebels

by Fabiola Torres López
Oct 30, 2018 in Digital Journalism

Since December 2017, journalists from the digital news site Rutas del Conflicto and their colleagues from the Colombia 2020 section of the newspaper El Espectador have combined their experience and knowledge to create La Paz en el Terreno ("Peace in the Field"). The project aims to produce reports and digital tools that allow us to better gauge the results of the peace agreement using two key factors: increasing violence against community leaders and the reintegration of ex-FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) rebels into civic life.

To achieve the first objective, our team built a database on all community leaders and human rights defenders killed between Sept. 26, 2016 (the day the peace agreement was signed in Havana) and the end of 2017; we documented these cases with official, academic and journalistic sources in order to create a database of the murders.

For the second objective, the team from La Paz en el Terreno investigated the status of the 25 areas in which former FARC rebels gathered to demobilize and rejoin civilian life. The goal was to produce reports and build databases and visualizations that capture how many former FARC members have started to reintegrate in Colombian society. For example, the project includes data on how many former FARC members have enrolled in health care, registered for government identity cards and signed up for pensions. Many former rebels come from peasant populations and traditionally excluded communities with low levels of schooling.

La Paz en el Terreno will be published online April 19 in a moment of tension due to Colombia’s parliamentary and presidential elections, in which the final agreement signed with the FARC has become one of the biggest causes of polarization in the country, divided between those who defend it and those who want to undo it. At this crucial moment, it's important to provide complete — and fully verified — data to citizens about their country’s peace process. Our investigation will be published on and shared widely on social media. We are looking for new alliances to generate content in other formats (podcast and print) that reach the most affected by the conflict.

In order to gather all this information, our team has overcome many challenges that relate to how journalists can use data to report on post-conflict societies. Here are some of our tips:

From estimated figures to documented cases

In Colombia, there is no master list of crimes against community leaders and human rights defenders: the Department of Protection of Citizens’ Rights office tracks these crimes; so does the Attorney General, as well as the the Presidential Commission on Human Rights. Various NGOs also keep their own data. For this reason, the journalists from La Paz en el Terreno compared all of these databases to produce a master record of cases. They verified their findings with documents and interviews with authorities and victims' relatives.

Apart from establishing comprehensive figures, our objective was to put together key data for each case, including: a profile of the murdered leader and his or her community or advocacy work, his home state and the state of the investigation into each crime. We needed to clean and organize this data because each source had some errors. There were numerous names spelled wrong, as well as errors describing the victims’ community advocacy or human rights work.

La Paz en el Terreno’s database currently has 90 documented homicides, but we will continue to expand it with new or missing information. We hope the data is useful not only for our readers but also for fellow journalists and official, academic and humanitarian institutions. The team and I believe it’s important for verified information about these cases to be easily accessible in one place, as opposed to scattered across many separate platforms.

Systemic patterns versus standalone cases

Analysis of La Paz en el Terreno’s data can also help us determine whether or not there are systemic patterns in the murders of community leaders. Our team of journalists paid close attention to active conflicts in regions of Colombia where many community leaders had been murdered. Analyzing this data helped us find local and regional patterns in homicides. In most cases, the assassinated leaders had publicly denounced illicit economies, primarily the drug trade, or the continued existence of criminal groups in their communities. These leaders tended to support the peace agreement and wanted access to the rights that the agreement had promised them.

Creating multiple storytelling formats to raise our project’s visibility

One of the things that makes La Paz en el Terreno different from other coverage of FARC is that the project isn’t just about reporting on daily news events. Our reporting is much more analytical and in-depth. We’ve included information researched from a variety of sources, including independent investigators; international organizations like the United Nations and Amnesty International; Colombian non-profits and various human rights associations. We took this information and presented it using a variety of storytelling formats, like data visualizations, podcasts, text stories, radio programs and social media posts, to help the project reach larger audiences.  It was especially important to produce audio content because the people most affected by our stories get their news from local radio stations.

Fabiola Torres López helps journalists in Central America, Mexico and Colombia to adopt the latest digital investigative journalism skills to improve their coverage on of corruption, transparency and governance issues. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Images courtesy of La Paz en el Terreno.