Chilean reporters launch investigative journalist network in the midst of protest over gag law

[Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include news about the status of the controversial "gag law" proposed in Congress.]

After several years of efforts to create a common space for discussion and cooperation and to improve tools to carry out high quality journalism—such as the use of databases and public sources of information—the Chilean Journalists' Network was officially launched on May 3 during an event called Sin Mordaza, which roughly translates to Without Censorship.

The president of the board of the newly inaugurated network, Chilean journalist Paulette Desormeaux, told Puro Periodismo that they seek to appeal to all their colleagues from around the country to join this group of investigative journalists, in their personal capacity, to exchange practical experiences and problems they face in their profession.

Meanwhile, Claudia Urquieta, journalist with the Chilean digital journal El Mostrador and a member of the new network, explained to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas that the creation of the network also came about to face the obstacles journalists face accessing and publishing information that is publicly relevant, something that has been affecting Chilean media over the last few years.

“In this context, we consider indispensable to, on the one hand, have journalism tools that are updated to these new times, to produce more and better journalism. On the other hand, to boost our work in cooperation with each other to prevent efforts to halt our work,” the journalist added.

Uriquieta, who is also part of the network’s Ethics Committee, said that the current political context of the country—referring to the cases of tax fraud and the illegal payments for millions of pesos that different Chilean companies, such as Grupo Penta and Aguas Andinas, made to businessmen and politicians to finance political campaigns that may even involve former Chilean president Sebastián Piñera—“has rung the alarm at different levels,” pushing for laws that seek to create roadblocks for journalists.

One of the laws that Urquieta referenced is the controversial "gag law", which proposed banning the publication of any confidential information relating to an ongoing criminal investigation and criminal sanctions for anyone who violated the ban. This law proposed by the Executive, at the request of the public prosecutor, was approved by the Chilean Senate on April 5. However, it was rejected by the Chamber of Deputies days later, and also by the designated joint committee of Congress on May 9, La Tercera reported.

In this regard, according to what was published in El Mostrador and La Tercera, Chilean legislator Alberto Espina said it was a "very contradictory" rule that, as it had been interpreted, could even punish a media outlet.

“That is why this network, which took its initial steps at the end of 2012, is even more important and necessary today,” Urquieta said.

The idea for a network of Chilean journalists grew stronger after seven investigative journalists met, once again, with the Brazilian journalist Rosental Alves, director and founder of the Knight Center, in Santiago in December 2012. As he had done a few years before, Alves encouraged them to organize themselves with the goal of creating spaces for free trainings and to exchange experiences as journalists.

“Approximately seven years ago, the Knight Center began to collaborate with an excellent group of investigative journalists from Chile who were very interested in creating an association similar to that of journalists from other countries. This is why we are extremely pleased that the dream has just become a reality,” the director of the Knight Center said.

In 2008, the Knight Center organized an international seminar on investigative journalism in Chile, with the hope of motivating journalists from the country to organize themselves as had happened in other countries. “That seminar was a success, but the organization of journalists did not take place [in that year],” Alves said.

The first event that was formally organized by the Network took place in July 2013, before becoming an association. They organized the International Workshop on Investigative Journalism Techniques, with the support of the Universidad Católica de Chile and the Knight Center.

“It has been an honor for the Knight Center to be able to lend a hand in the creation of this international seminar on investigative journalism, which marked the launch of a new organization of Chilean journalists interested in improving the quality standards of journalism in their country,” Alves told the Knight Center then.

Once formally registered in the legal record as a private, non-profit organization, members held their first general assembly in the University of Chile in May 2016. The board and the 34 founding members of the Network were ratified during this meeting.

The five journalists who make up the board of the association are: Paulette Desormeaux, president of the network, professor of the Universidad Católica and journalism director of Base Pública; Juan Pablo Figueroa, a journalist with the show Contacto on Canal 13; Jennifer Abate, a scholar from the University of Chile’s school of journalism; Francisca Miranda, a journalist with Reportajes de La Tercera; and Josefina Eckholt, a journalist with Mega.

The members of the network’s Ethics Committee are: Carola Fuentes, director of La Ventana Cine, who serves as committee chair; Pedro Ramírez, editor of CIPER; and Claudia Urquieta, a journalist with El Mostrador.

As one of its first tasks, the network created several commissions to push forward a training for the second half of the year and established several commissions to help “fine tune the functioning” of the association in the long-term, Urquieta told the Knight Center.

There are other associations of investigative journalists who have common objectives in other countries in Latin America, much like the Network in Chile, such as the Argentine Journalism Forum (FOPEA for its initials in Spanish), Consejo de Redacción in Colombia, and the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalists (Abraji).

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.