Contracorriente is a relatively new digital native, founded in 2017, but already capable of making an impact in Honduras. And this was recognized by the 2021 Maria Moors Cabot Prize with a special citation from the jury.
“Gaining relevance as a media outlet in such a short time is because there was a need for ethical media to exist and deal with the news, with the information that is obtained and that is verified at the end of the day,” Catherine Calderón, co-founder and development director of Contracorriente, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).
Calderón's sense of purpose is shared by Jennifer Ávila, also co-founder and editorial director of Contracorriente. They lead the outlet, which recently was part of covering the Pandora Papers, an international collaboration that revealed cases of tax evasion and avoidance by political and business leaders who hide wealth in tax havens.
“In Honduras, in particular, obviously the issue is much stronger due to the issue of inequality, the poverty that exists in the country, corruption among politicians and the impunity that exists in corruption. There are five stories that I covered for this,” Ávila told LJR.
In this interview, Ávila and Calderón talk about this investigation and much more, including behind the scenes of the creation and maintenance of Contracorriente, as well as how they deal with sexism in journalism. They also give advice to young journalists interested in carrying out investigations of impact in Latin America.
“We the independent media have been left quite alone as a tool for civil society. But I think that existing is important and that these recognitions also raise the profile of this type of project a lot since it helps all of Honduran society, not just Contracorriente,” Ávila said.
LJR’s interview with Ávila and Calderón below has been lightly edited for style and length.
LatAm Journalism Review: What does the Special Citation for the Cabot Prizes represent for Contracorriente?
Jennifer Ávila: It is an honor, obviously. But it is also a great responsibility that we take on ourselves, to do the journalism that we have to do in a country like Honduras, with a very big democratic crisis. A country in one of the most violent regions in the world, Central America, but also a region that is currently experiencing autocratic governments, regressing a lot in terms of corruption and democracy.
So, it is a very big responsibility, it is a very big challenge for us as well, in keeping Contracorriente's journalism independent, keeping it rigorous, professional and with the objective of creating a new generation of journalists. It is a great encouragement, a great responsibility and it further marks the challenges we have to do the professional journalism that this country needs right now.
Catherine Calderón: First of all, it is a great responsibility. Because although it is true that it is not the award as such, a mention makes us aware of the great responsibility that we have not only in Honduras but in the region, regarding the journalism that we are doing, regarding the work that the entire team does in its day to day and in the publications that are made.
In addition, this mention comes to show or ratify the entire process that we carry out for each of the stories. So in a fairly natural way, to first take care of the sources, to have that touch and that sensitivity when telling the stories, taking as a first point the subject of who we interviewed. In other words, if a source tells us or is part of these statements, it is part of a journalistic product, always trying not to take away the voice of this person, but to leave the texts as fluid as possible.
So, this citation tells us two things: one, that we have greater responsibility in our process; and two, that we are doing things well because we are starting from that point of view and from that feeling of wanting to do different journalism, starting by giving the sources, which are part of our stories, the place they deserve.
LJR: Contracorriente is a relatively new media outlet, but it achieved relevance and impact in a very short time. What is the biggest challenge, if you can choose one, that you have faced in this journey and how have you overcome it (or are you working to overcome it)?
JA: It was a great challenge to create Contracorriente as a totally independent media outlet, with the construction of a media outlet from scratch, literally. With two women at the helm, which in this case are Catherine and I. And I say this because ... it's true, we still live in a very macho world. At the beginning, it took a lot to take the place that we deserved and have the place that the journalism that Contracorriente was doing really deserved. Because yes, there was a very macho vision around journalism.
The journalism that stands out is always that of men, or men are the majority at least. Until very recently, in fact, they were the majority of media directors or editorial directors. And I think that with Cathy (Catherine) we managed to break that, opening a path to journalism regardless of us being young women. In other words, opening that path for women, especially for young women like us, because it does have many more challenges.
But I think in the end, it's still a challenge to be an independent, respected voice, to start creating committed audiences. And in the end I think that at Contracorriente we have done it relatively quickly. But Contracorriente also became very relevant because we were born at a very necessary moment.
It was the moment of the institutional political crisis, one of the strongest in recent years in the network, with the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández. People in the streets, dead in the streets. We had to cover the entire conflict, that entire crisis. And I think we did it in a very comprehensive way, which is obviously why it also became critical.
CC: It is fundamental to start from the fact that Jennifer and I, when we sit down and look at this first idea, this first stroke of “well, we want there to be a space where we ourselves also have the possibility of doing journalism and doing the work we want." But also to have a space that would allow us to connect with other people who were on the same wavelength, who wanted to continue telling this country without being, in some way, silent for one reason or another, which in other spaces did not happen.
That part is what has helped. In other words, Contracorriente, now more than ever, four years later, I really feel that it was necessary. We had to exist. Because there was a need not only for us, but for a group of people, a group of young people who came wanting to have a space like this.
And I think the biggest challenge was, one, finding that team that also decided to get on board with us. And reporting this in a context where there is a lot of violence. But, if we add to this being a young person, and most of those on our team are women. Being a young woman journalist in a country like ours and also investigating the issues that we investigate in depth, that was our first challenge. But along the way we have found the possibility of working with people who are totally committed to wanting to do journalism like the one we envision.
And, on the other hand, the other great challenge we have is the issue of invisibility and the institutional blockade that exists by the State when accessing information. Without the information that should be public or accessible to verify and make this entire investigation process as rigorous as possible, well it would also be a little easier for us. But it is a challenge to decipher these documents in images or photocopy of printed images, to be able to tell a story.
Third, I could say that it is the issue of the economic part, which is definitely a great challenge, taking into account that we are a media outlet that, usually, in countries like ours, is maintained or could maintain a large part through advertising. But, we have decided not to have advertising of any kind on our networks or on our platforms in order to maintain our independence. So, I think that this is a great challenge, but that we have been working on it for these four years.
LJR: This year, all the Cabot Prizes have been for women. What challenges have you dealt with as women doing journalism in Latin America?
JA: We women have many more challenges in these macho societies. There is one thing that we are confronted with every day, that our young journalists are also confronted with every day at work, and that is sexual harassment. It is very strong because it comes from almost all sources. There is obviously an issue of very strong power relations that affect us journalists. But we are also women so we are also affected by the issue of power and gender relations.
And then the very violent contexts against women, of great impunity in the case of violence against women, also end up affecting our work. And I think it is like something extra that we face doing this work in hostile territories or covering conflicts and moments of violence.
Obviously, we see that the other citation is for The Cartel Project, which was led by this woman, this journalist, Regina [Martínez Pérez], who was killed in Mexico, as well as Miroslava [Breach]. In other words, a lot of women journalists who have lost their lives and who have been discredited in their work because they have faced these structures. And also because women are also not expected to take on these roles of leadership, of oversight, and of investigation. So, I think there are many things to break, especially in Latin America, on this issue.
CC: Being a woman in Latin America is already a great challenge. But being a journalist and being a woman in a country like ours, where most of the corporate media industry is run by men who, for years, have been involved in processes and have been allies of the state, rather than the profession itself or the call to unmask acts of corruption.
The first challenge doing journalism in Latin America is the issue of facing a system that will ignore the work that is done simply because you are a woman. Not because your work is not well done, but because you are not a man and you are not the usual stereotype that we are used to seeing.
And, third, harassment. It doesn't matter what level you are at, it doesn't matter which sources you are interviewing. People who we think may be quite sensitized and continue to be part of this system in which they feel totally protected because that is how it works. Well, the world of men.
It is a part that fills us with joy to know that this year's Cabot Prizes are recognizing women journalists for the work we do. Not because we are women, but because it is about time someone recognized the work of women in these areas that, for many years, have been quite invisible, and do not fit a stereotype that men want us to have in this industry.
LJR: What's the most difficult story you've covered recently?
JA: I think currently one of the most ambitious projects in collaborative journalism issues in the world, which is the Pandora Papers, which only came out two days ago. It was a very interesting experience in which Contracorriente participated. A project with more than 600 journalists around the world. Covering very delicate topics such as tax evasion or the concealment of fortunes in offshore companies.
In Honduras, in particular, obviously, the issue is much stronger due to the issue of inequality, the poverty that exists in the country, corruption among politicians, and the impunity that exists in corruption. There are five stories that I covered for this. For now, because I think this is going to give us much more.
But participating in this Pandora Papers project has been very interesting. It is a very, very ambitious, and interesting international collaborative journalism experience for the entire Contracorriente team.
CC: For me, each one is difficult and quite challenging. But, without a doubt, having been part of the Pandora Papers has generated a change in attitude and in assuming the responsibility that we have as a media outlet and as women who are leading a journalistic team, which is being part of something transnational again. Because this is already our third time collaborating on a high-impact, transnational investigation.
Definitely, working on the issue of corruption with hostile actors, such as former politicians, former presidents, and former ministers. People who have also been involved, or people close to them have been involved in drug trafficking in Honduras. It represents a great challenge and that, definitely, it will always be difficult, because of what I mentioned in the first question.
We already live in a country where it is dangerous to live, that is, you survive here. But being so close to topics like these makes us a much easier target. And it also generates more work for us in terms of our exercise, how we do it, how we protect sources again, how we protect the information, the work itself, our own lives, and those of our families.
So at this point, I would say the Pandora Papers. Not because of how complicated it was to unravel all that information, but how difficult it is to reach the actors to also have those statements from official sources and deal with the harassment that it generates from that search for answers. Personally, I was not totally involved, Jennifer was, but, definitely, in the end, I am impacted by all the work that is done on the journalistic level.
LJR: In recent years, the situation of media in Latin America has become increasingly complicated. What is your vision of the near future of journalism in Honduras?
JA: We believe that Contracorriente is setting a new course for independent journalism and journalism in general in Honduras. In fact, we have a project called La Nave, which is a transmedia journalism school. Contracorriente has worked exactly like this in these four years, a space where the new generation of journalists who want to do independent journalism, who want to break paradigms in that regard in terms of journalism, are coming to our newsroom.
That's a pretty positive view of what journalism is doing. I think that also, as we advance in journalism, they also advance and more walls are built so that we don’t do our work. As I said at the beginning, we are living in an era of democratic crisis. Honduras [is] in an electoral autocracy, we are approaching an electoral process soon that has already been announced that it is going to be another political crisis.
In other words, we have 12 years of a coup and the country has been convulsing every time there are elections. Yes, there are many limitations, there is a lot of impunity in Honduras, the mission of support against corruption and impunity, which could have represented a small light on issues of justice and the fight against corruption, was expelled. That was dismantled.
We the independent media have been left quite alone as a tool for civil society. But I think that existing is important and that these recognitions also raise the profile of this type of project a lot since it helps all of Honduran society, not just Contracorriente
CC: At Contracorriente we have a lot of hope. We always say if it is not with us, at least we want for the people who come to work with us or people who are part of the journalistic and training processes that we have opened for communicators, for journalists, or people who are interested in doing this work. That they definitely have at least the information and tools on how to do good ethical journalism that is needed in the country, in the region, at the end of the day.
Gaining relevance as a media outlet in such a short time is because there was a need for ethical media to exist and deal with the news, with the information that is obtained and that is verified at the end of the day.
I think there is definitely great potential. There is a group of young people who really want and believe that this type of process is necessary. We have been in a crisis for more than a decade since the coup d'état that has allowed us to go to have other spaces, but it has also allowed the population itself, the citizens, to recognize themselves as a fundamental part of this democratic process that is going to begin to break down. To start operating based on the information they consume.
So, we have a great opportunity. Many challenges, definitely. Nor are we the country that reads the most, but there is a group of people who are trying, and who are echoing the work that we are doing.
In some way, I think a lot about this new generation of journalists, who are seeing a possibility. Because in the region there is more and more talk, worldwide there is more and more talk of independent journalism. Independent journalism that does exist, that before, ten years ago, none of us had such a palpable reference, so close in which we could say: “Well, it can be done because this was achieved.”
LJR: What advice would you give to young journalists in Latin America who, like you, would like to do investigative and in-depth journalism?
JA: My advice to young journalists in Latin America is to read a lot, study a lot, think that journalism should also be done together with multiple disciplines. In other words, it is also very important to have a comprehensive, holistic vision of what is happening, we have a very great responsibility.
And I think investigative journalism can be done like this, that is, investigating a lot, studying a lot, and no longer thinking that we are going to do it alone. Now you can network internationally. We must take advantage of globalization to also weave global networks that allow us to practice journalism in our countries, but also with a vision of the global problems that we are experiencing.
It is not easy to do independent journalism, there is also a monopoly of information and narrative on the internet. But that all this is something that has to be seen and that has to be changed, as we all also build new global narratives based on investigative journalism.
CC: I practically answered it in the previous one. But it would be that they really do not stop doing what they believe, what is correct, that they always follow their intuition and that they are impeccable with their own word, that they honor that profession that they have decided to exercise. Regardless of whether it was your first option, your last option or a coincidence of life, do it with the greatest possible respect and always have an attitude of humility.
Because, in this profession, you have to learn and it has to be done in an increasingly collaborative way. And that does not work when egos take precedence over work when your professional ego prevails before the story and the impact that the story we are telling can have.
*Editor’s note: Rosental Alves, Cabot Board Chair, is founder and director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, which publishes LatAm Journalism Review.