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Innovative Websites Usher In A New Era for Investigative Journalism in Latin America

Innovative Websites Usher In A New Era for Investigative Journalism in Latin America

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When it comes to press freedom, Latin America's reputation is less than stellar. Over the course of last week reports surfaced of an arson attack against a radio station in Argentina, two newspaper employees going missing in Mexico, a journalist being beaten and stabbed in Bolivia, and an editor going on hunger strike in Venezuela to protest his imprisonment. And that's not even a complete list.

But despite the challenges, there are reporters who won't be deterred from chasing serious stories. Their work is independent, investigative, online - and thriving.

Plaza Pública

One of the most recent examples is Plaza Pública in Guatemala. This digital publication was founded in February 2011, and is partly funded by the Jesuit University Rafael Landívar, partly by the London-based Open Society Foundations. The paper's editor-in-chief and founder, Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, told WAN-IFRA that he was originally invited by the university to create an "in depth" newspaper that would be "different from Guatemala's superficial and more conservative media".

At first Plaza Pública was somewhat ignored, says Mr Rodríguez Pellecer, and sometimes politicians didn't want to speak to the title "because we asked them uncomfortable questions". However, the digital paper pushed ahead and went on to publish stories about drug-trafficking, corruption in big business and politics, abuse of power and racism.

Plaza Pública impressed WikiLeaks enough to be the smallest and youngest publication to receive exclusive access to the US embassy cables, something which, according to Mr Rodríguez Pellecer, gave the publication a big boost on the national and international scene.

Mr Rodríguez Pellecer says there is a market for in-depth journalism that "doesn't just narrate" but "questions" instead. He stresses that, despite the opinion of some businessmen and publishers "that people are stupid and don't want to read," Plaza Pública operates on the assumption, "if our articles are good, people are going to find time to read them".

He seems to have been proven right. Plaza Pública began this year with 1 thousand users, and that was "without any ads, just by word of mouth". Now, in a country of 3 million Internet users, the site has about 15,000 unique visitors per week.

El Faro

Plaza Pública is not alone. One of its "role models", the founding father of digital, investigative Latin American publications, is El Faro, based in El Salvador. In the wake of a brutal 12-year civil war, Carlos Dada and Jorge Simán, two sons of Salvadorian exiles, wanted to found a paper "that would be honest and fresh, treating its public like intelligent people."

In 1998 El Faro was born. At first it was run on a volunteer basis, before receiving funding in 2003. Now it has a newsroom of 25 people and more than 300,000 readers a month. Like Plaza Pública, El Faro was given exclusive access to the WikiLeaks cables, and Julian Assange gave a long interview to co-founder Carlos Dada.

The quality of El Faro's journalism has also been recognised by the establishment, as it was awarded the María Moors Cabot prize for excellence in Latin American and Caribbean journalism by Columbia University. El Faro reported that Nicholas Lemann, Dean of the Columbia Journalism School, said that the publication "has demonstrated how a digital medium can overcome the barrier of costs and offer honest and high-quality journalism in a region where the standards of journalism are low and much of the media is deeply partisan and even corrupt".

Like Plaza Pública, El Faro focuses on long-form, serious, investigative journalism that is more about the 'how' and the 'why' than the 'what'. As he accepted the María Moors Cabot prize, co-founder Mr Dada told the audience "on our pages, you probably won't find out who was killed yesterday, but maybe, if you give us a little time, we might be capable of saying why so many people are being killed in our part of the world."

La Silla Vacía

Another example is La Silla Vacía in Bogotá, Colombia. Founded in 2009 it produces journalism that focuses on the dynamics of power in the country. The name "La Silla Vacía" means "the empty chair", and the paper's founder and editor in chief Juanita León explains on the website that the title refers to several instances in Colombian politics of people in power not being there to fulfill their obligations. "In Colombia, power almost always passes through an empty chair," she writes. "The person who doesn't turn up is almost always the person with the most power".

La Silla Vacía works to hold this inaccessible authority to account. Ms León told WAN-IFRA in an email interview that the challenge in doing this isn't really the fear of violence: "when Colombian journalists don't write what they know, it's not so much because they fear being attacked. Rather, it's because their bosses don't want to attack their friends and advertisers," she says. (See also 'preguntas frecuentes', where she has published her answers to our questions in full). She stresses that some of La Silla Vacía's best stories have been about the relationship of power, the media and politics. "These issues where the public and private sectors intersect aren't often touched upon," she states.

Mr Rodríguez Pellecer suggests the situation is similar in Guatemala, "Absolutely nobody publishes anything about business people. Nobody acts as a watchdog over the power of businesses, which, in a country like Guatemala, is actually much greater than the power of politicians."

Digital media - democratising journalism

Apart from being investigative, the factor these publications have in common is that they're online. Mr Rodríguez Pellecer is quite blunt about the reason why: "it's cheaper". He explained that "of course I would love to have a printed newspaper but I don't have $500,000 to maintain a printing press or a building, and neither do El Faro and La Silla Vacía". Mr Dada, when he received the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, said "even though we are the pioneers of online journalism, we are what we are because of our content... The technology is the medium, but the content is what's significant."

But this is changing, perhaps. Ms León, by contrast, is deeply committed to digital technology, writing on La Silla Vacía's site "we have no interest in producing a printed paper. That's the past." León tells WAN-IFRA that she doesn't believe that the values of classical journalism that Mr Dada celebrates "are at all incompatible with the idea that technology is transforming how journalism is done in a very significant way." She says that she believes "the medium does a lot to define the message." La Silla Vacía's website goes a long way to exploit new media. It is deeply interactive, with twitter debates streamed to the home page and a section named "movida" ("hot topics") where the publication poses a question, and experts and influential figures, as well as the users themselves, are invited to comment.

Is the non-profit model sustainable?

The other factor that these publications have in common is that they're funded, partially or fully, by the London-based Open Society Foundations (formerly know as the Open Society Institute, established by George Soros). This prompts questions over whether perhaps the future of investigative journalism in Latin America (or even around the world) will be NGO supported.

However, Ms León and Mr Rodríguez Pellecer seem to view the OSF support as a transitional measure. Mr Rodríguez Pellecer says "at the moment, it's not exactly artificial, but being financed by the university and Open Society Foundations isn't forever." Like newspaper publishers around the globe, he believes that in terms of sustainability "we need to look for a model, and we still haven't found it."

Ms León praises the OSF, which she says "does an impressive job of financing the transition of independent media to sustainability." However, it will not be the paper's only future source of income: "I think the future of investigative journalism will depend partly on the philanthropy of institutions like the OSF and partly on its users, who want to continue reading good journalism."

So are these investigative digital papers part of a trend in Latin America? "I hope so" says Mr Rodríguez Pellecer. Ms León is positive too: "I'm convinced that more and more, the best journalists in Latin American will start doing the kind of journalism they dream of and which the Internet will allow them to do."


Hannah Vinter's picture

Hannah Vinter


2011-11-24 14:01

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In countless countries, journalists, editors and publishers are physically attacked, imprisoned, censored, suspended or harassed for their work. WAN-IFRA is committed to defending freedom of expression by promoting a free and independent press around the world. Read more ...