Convicted politicians and paradigm changes for journalists: effects of the global Lava Jato scandal

On July 12, a Brazilian federal judge sentenced former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to nine and a half years in prison for corruption, obstruction of justice and money laundering in relation to the Lava Jato case, a corruption scheme in at least 12 countries involving several Brazilian companies and politicians in Latin America.

Just one day later, former Peruvian leader Ollanta Humala surrendered to authorities in his country after a judge ordered his detention for 18 months while he is investigated for money laundering and conspiracy, charges also related to the Lava Jato case.

Da Silva and Humala are the two most important people to fall as part of the Lava Jato case so far, but they are not the only ones. Dozens of officials and businessmen in Latin America have been sentenced or are in the process of being investigated.

Journalists investigating the Lava Jato case in the region say that such arrests, sentences and judicial investigations are the result of intense and timely media coverage of the case.

The first part of this article discussed the key role of cross-border collaborations and structured journalist alliances in the Lava Jato case. In the second installment, the journalists explained how they have managed to go beyond the authorities' agenda with investigations using their own sources and shared the tools they have used to facilitate understanding of the subject among their readers.

For this third installment of the Lava Jato coverage series, communicators told the Knight Center how their work has impacted society and political life in their countries, the most important findings of their investigations and the influence of the case the way journalists work together.

Coverage with an impact

The journalistic investigations of the Lava Jato case have had numerous effects in the political and social lives of the countries touched by the network of corruption, some more visible than others.

In countries like Peru, second only to Brazil in terms of countries where this corruption network has had the greatest impact, journalistic investigations caused the authorities to open their eyes to the issue.

“As we publish our first stories, the nation's attorney decides to appoint a prosecutor to do all the investigations in the Lava Jato case,” Romina Mella, journalist from Peruvian investigative journalism organization IDL-Reporteros, told the Knight Center. “As a result of each of our investigations, prosecutors have adopted them and have conducted their own investigations.”

Nearly 80 percent of the judicial processes that have been opened in the countries that make up IDL-Reporters’ Latin American Network of Structured Investigative Journalism have been the product of reports published by the alliance, according to the journalists.

The communicators agree that one of the most important results of their collaboration is finding patterns of corruption in different countries, which has helped to open up more paths for further research on the Lava Jato maze.

“There are behavioral patterns of the companies that we need to investigate together to understand the phenomenon in all its aspects,” Flávio Ferreira, journalist from Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, told the Knight Center. “If I can talk to my colleagues and explain that here, in Brazil, public contracts were fraudulent because of this, this and this, they can also do their investigations taking these patterns into account and contribute to their societies.”

The patterns of corruption found in countries such as Brazil and Peru have mainly helped journalists in nations where the investigations are not so advanced or where the scandal has not had as big an impact.

“The circumstances in Peru are much stronger and more serious than in Chile,” Alberto Arellano, journalist from Chilean organization CIPER, told the Kight Center. “They have a sensitivity and understanding of the case that is much greater than we can have, so it helps us to get closer to them to understand globally what is happening and see if we can find patterns of corruption in Peru that are repeated in Chile.”

Whether due to lack of resources or because of daily coverage, most traditional media in the region have not delved into the Lava Jato issue beyond hard news. On the contrary, the investigative coverage of digital or independent media has made them models on the subject for newspapers and radio and television news programs. Representatives of these independent media outlets are frequently interviewed as experts by traditional media.

“Every time we publish some of these investigations, most media outlets replicate the subject. That is a sign there is interest,” said Raúl Olmos, journalist from site  Mexicanos contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad, who added that in Mexico, the issue is still perceived as distant among society. “What strikes us is that there isn’t any in-depth research on the part of traditional media.”

The level of coverage in different countries is also uneven. While in countries like Brazil, Panama and Argentina, traditional media are involved in the subject in-depth, in Mexico, Peru and Colombia, the independent media lead the way.

“Media outlets like Convoca or Mexicans against Corruption are producing much better coverage,” Ferreira said. “It seems to me that mainly in Mexico, our colleagues are doing a job that investigators should be doing. In Peru, we have the independent media doing a very important job, besides Convoca there is IDL-Reporteros and Ojo Público. It's a very interesting country because independent media are very powerful.”

The extent to which the audience takes ownership of the case and the intensity of the social mobilizations also vary from country to country. While in some nations the subject of Lava Jato has provoked protests, in others, the case is hardly known.

“In Brazil, (the Lava Jato case) has mobilized people in the streets. In Colombia, it is an issue that has remained in the elites. In Peru, it's a media issue, but not for the people, while in the Dominican Republic the media have done nothing, and people have already taken to the streets,” said Carlos Eduardo Huertas of Connectas.

On a professional level, collaboration in the coverage of Lava Jato has also led to great lessons and paradigm shifts for journalists. Several agree that from this form of work, they have learned to set aside competition and professional jealousy, and have abandoned the idea that the journalist is a "lone wolf," to give way to professional generosity.

“There is spontaneous generosity that is very rewarding. [This collaborative work] has been very satisfying, because there is no selfishness, no meanness. There is an open will to help each other,” Arellano said. “There is no competition whatsoever, only the spirit to help each other, to help us all with the same end:  to reveal everything down to the last detail, to know the truth.”

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.

More Articles