Fiquem Sabendo, an independent data journalism website founded by Brazilian journalist Léo Arcoverde, celebrates its two year anniversary in May with hundreds of reports and more than one thousand applications to the Law for Access to Information.
The site, which specializes in producing articles with data obtained through the LAI, celebrates its anniversary in the same month that marks five years since the law’s implementation. The LAI came into force on May 16, 2012, and Fiquem Sabendo came online on May 26, 2015.
In those two years, Arcoverde published 116 stories on public safety, one of the main themes of Fiquem Sabendo, as well as 85 articles on urban mobility and 63 on the environment and basic sanitation. All these were done with data received through the law.
"As much as public power disrespects this right, the LAI still allows us to raise a lot of information of public interest. This tool couples with shoe-leather reporting, talking to people on the streets. And when you talk to sources, it also improves your LAI requests," he told the Knight Center.
Since launching the site, Arcoverde has created the habit of making one or two requests via law of access every day. "I received 623 replies from the government of the State of São Paulo. Together with city hall and the federal government, I have already made well over a thousand requests. This week I received four answers, and four more last week," he said.
The stories caught the attention of large outlets, who republished texts from the site or made reports using Fiquem Sabendo’s data. Through a partnership with UOL, Arcoverde's material had greater repercussions and were among the Brazilian site’s most read stories for several days, the journalist said. This was the case for reports that mapped crimes, which pointed to the city’s streets with the highest number of vehicle thefts, for example.
However, one of the most well-known articles by Fiquem Sabendo brought to light unpublished data on the water crisis in São Paulo between 2014 and 2015. At the time, despite several cases of water shortage in the city, the government denied that it was rationing. The Arcoverde story was the first to publish the number of water shortage cases registered, by neighborhood, in São Paulo.
It was exactly this topic that led Arcoverde to leave the newspaper where he worked, Agora, to create Fiquem Sabendo. The journalist was a reporter and assistant editor and was very dissatisfied with the stories about the water crisis, which he said were "lacking in information." "It was one of the worst coverages I've seen in 10 years as a journalist. That's a criticism of my work as well," he said.
“We spent months in the litany of showing the characters without water and the government denying it. We could not get any statistics that would qualify the public debate, that would allow us to understand what was happening. The distribution and the sanitation are done by a state-owned company, controlled by engineers. It was not possible that they [the company] had no data, the engineers talk with sheets in their hands. Then I realized that it was a decision of the São Paulo government itself not to report,” Arcoverde recalled.
Frustrated, the journalist asked to be dismissed from the newspaper and created the Fiquem Sabendo.
"I got the data through the LAI and, a month after the site was launched, I published the story I always wanted to give. All the newspapers followed and quoted Fiquem Sabendo," he said.
According to Arcoverde, one of the reasons he created the site was the lack of space in the press for story topics he deemed important. As an example, he cites the articles on criminal mapping, detailed by neighborhood and region.
"It's a story that the newspaper accepts just once, but two or three times, no. The newspaper does not publish everything the journalist investigates, that's normal. I saw that there was a lot that was not exactly newspaper coverage, but it was interesting and I could do in another place."
Nowadays, Arcoverde continues to write on the water issue, a subject that became secondary in the press after the end of the crisis and the partial recovery of the dams.
Two years after creating the site, Arcoverde still maintains Fiquem Sabendo by himself. The journalist was exclusively dedicated to the project for a year and a half, but failed to monetize the site. The partnership with UOL paid for published material, as a freelancer, but the value was low, according to Arcoverde. Thus, the journalist had to accept other proposals and returned to working in a newsroom. "Globonews has seen Fiquem Sabendo, the boss got my phone number from the site and called me," he said.
Arcoverde plans to run a crowdfunding campaign for Fiquem Sabendo, but has not yet had time to plan it. "I spend 8 hours in the newsroom, 3 hours on the way to work, plus the time I invest in the site. I still have personal life, I am husband and father. I lack time,” he said. Therefore, the journalist wants to do a crowdfunding campaign and pay partners to help produce content for the site.
Disrespecting the LAI
In addition to the lack of time, another thing that harms Arcoverde’s work is the disrespect of the Law of Access to Information by those in power. According to him, noncompliance with the law has increased over the years.
"The biggest problem for LAI today, on its five-year anniversary, is that the people who hold the most important positions, those who actually run the public administration, have realized the law is a great tool for obtaining information. Politicians and technicians today clearly know that, through the LAI, journalists and NGOs can generate some noise. They turned off the tap," the journalist protested.
He criticized that, in the early years of the law, the answers were more complete and neutral. "When no one gave LAI a ball in the public domain, it was delivered beautifully. An entire worksheet, and they even thanked you for using LAI. Everything is locked up today,” he said.
Like many journalists, Arcoverde had to come up with strategies to get answers. He said he currently divides one request into several, hoping at least one will be met. He also complained that the process, once impersonal, is now personal meaning, they identify that the request comes for a journalist and hamper responses.
"They are paying attention: this is going to generate a headline. Because they know it’s me asking, I already know that there is a greater attention to the request, that the answer will have a bias, because they respond with concern about the negative impact it may have. They call on my personal cell phone, that's inconceivable, "he said. "Unfortunately, disrespecting the LAI has become public policy."
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.