Honduran investigative journalist Jennifer Avila wins Gabo 2023 Award for Excellence in Journalism

Honduran investigative journalist Jennifer Ávila — reporter, editorial director, and co-founder of Contracorriente — was the winner of the Recognition of Excellence category of the Gabo Award 2023, becoming the first journalist from her country to receive the honor, the Gabo Foundation announced Monday morning.

In the minutes justifying its choice, the Board of Directors of the Gabo Award, composed of 14 journalists, writers and academics, said that the decision honors "a young professional who, despite all the difficulties, decided to persevere in the practice of good journalism, respecting the principle that the right to information is not a privilege of journalists, but a right of the people.”

Contracorriente, the independent news outlet that Ávila, 32, founded in 2017 alongside Catherine Calderón, stands out for its investigative journalism, which features stories on organized crime, corruption, and impunity in Honduras. Currently, Calderón is Contracorriente’s director of development.

According to Ávila, it is common for Hondurans to say that there is no real journalism in Honduras, or that journalists are "sell-outs.”

"In Honduras, producing independent investigative journalism with the quality that citizens deserve is a huge challenge, because the craft has been damaged for many years and the fear of reporting and scrutinizing power structures is greater," Ávila told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

Honduras is currently the most violent country in Central America. It recorded 38.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2023, according to the International Rescue Committee's (IRC) Emergency Watchlist 2022 report.

Journalists are a common target of criminal groups in the country. According to the Honduran Association of Journalists (CPH, by its Spanish acronym), there have been more than 90 murders of press professionals in the country over the past 20 years. Among these cases, there have been only four convictions, the same organization reported last year.

Human rights defenders, environmentalists, ethnic minorities, and historically marginalized groups are also subjected to "historic violence" in the country, according to a recent definition by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDh). In the first two months of 2023, five environmental and land defenders were murdered in the country.

This scenario creates additional risks for journalists. "In a country with more than 90 journalists murdered in the last two decades, a country classified as a narco-state, where mafias have taken over territories, self-censorship and corruption have taken over most of the media," Ávila added.

Ávila also faces the challenge of structural sexism in journalism. In an interview with LJR in 2021, Ávila said that in the beginning, "it took a lot to take the place that we [Contracorriente] deserved" because of "a very macho vision around journalism.”

According to the jury, despite facing risks to their safety and the difficulty in accessing information, Ávila and the young team she leads have produced "vigorous and ethical journalism" and managed to establish themselves "as a reference point in regional and transnational investigations that have had repercussions inside and outside their borders.”

The site has become "a school for a new generation of Honduran journalists who have been forced to survive in a political system controlled by mafias and autocracies," according to the text.

"To some extent, distrust in the media is based on the fact that their traditional business model is based on corruption, bribery, influence peddling, and political interests,” Ávila said.

She said she considers the Gabo Foundation's tribute "very special." "Gabriel García Márquez has been a bedside writer and journalist since I was in high school, and the Gabo Foundation has been a school of thought since I started my career," she said. "The professors who now recognize my work were my inspiration, and thanks to them we have not only Contracorriente, but many other independent news outlets in our Central American region."

Contracorriente, whose slogan is "Connecting with reality," invests in long-form reporting, with a strong focus on human rights coverage and the state of Honduran democracy. The publications often use a multimedia format, mixing text, video, infographics, and audio.

The site also has a section dedicated to LGBTQ+ populations, and another on culture and lifestyle. In addition to the Spanish version, Contracorriente also has a website in English, which posts translated versions of its main feature stories.

Among the highlights of its coverage to date are the stories linked to the Pandora Papers case in 2021, which revealed cases of tax evasion and tax avoidance by Honduran political and business leaders, accused of hiding their assets in tax havens.

Before this most recent honor, Ávila and Contracorriente had already won several other awards, such as a special mention from the jury of the 2021 Maria Moors Cabot Award and the Lasa Media Award 2020, from the Latin American Studies Association (Lasa).

The journalist also said that the visibility offered by the awards strengthens her job security. "Thanks to them, we are more protected doing this work that is uncomfortable to dangerous figures, who endanger or have destroyed what little democracy we had just known in our countries."

According to Ávila, the awards draw attention not only to journalism, but also to the topics they cover. "They shine a light on our countries, the state of democracy, the stories that often get lost in the internet, in the algorithm, in the social media scroll. Somehow, they make those stories more urgent."

On the other hand, she points out, the accolades also put "a huge responsibility on us who receive them, to keep doing what we’re doing and to always do it better."

Ávila, whose full name is Jennifer Alejandra Ávila Reyes, was born in 1990 in El Progreso, in the Yoro department of Honduras.

Over her 10 years of experience, she has shown versatility as an investigator, working as a documentary filmmaker, print and radio reporter, fixer, analyst, and researcher. In addition to Contracorriente, she has collaborated with news outlets such as The Washington Post, Divergentes, Distintas Latitudes, and Allied News.

Their Contracorriente venture began with a small group of four people working in a borrowed office, including two volunteers. Since then, under Ávila and Calderón's youthful leadership, the team has grown to more than 20 people.

Ávila will receive the Recognition of Excellence award at the eleventh edition of the Gabo Festival, where the winners of the five categories of the Gabo Award 2023 competition will also be honored: Audio, Coverage, Photography, Image, and Text. Nominations for the Gabo Award are due by March 22.

It will also be part of the program of the Gabo Festival, the largest gathering dedicated to journalism, citizenship and culture in Latin America. This year, it will be held from June 30 to July 2 in Bogota, Colombia.

According to the Gabo Foundation's description, the Gabo Award's Recognition of Excellence category annually elects "a journalist or news team of recognized independence, integrity, and commitment to the public service ideals of journalism, who deserves to be singled out and recognized as a reference point for their entire career or for an outstanding contribution to the pursuit of truth and the advancement of journalism."

Since its creation in 2013, awards have been given to Costa Rican journalist Giannina Segnini (2013), Colombian journalist Javier Darío Restrepo and Mexican journalist Marcela Turati (2014), Brazilian journalist Dorrit Harazim (2015), the team from the Central American-focused vehicle El Faro (2016), Mexican-American journalist Jorge Ramos (2017), Spanish journalist Ignacio Escolar (2018), Colombian photojournalist Jesús Abad Colorado (2019), the team from the Chilean vehicle Radio Cooperativa (2020), Nicaraguan cartoonist Pedro X. Molina (2021), and Mexican journalist Juan Villoro (2022).

The Board of Directors of the Gabo Award is formed since June 2022 by: Rosental Alves* (Brazil), Jon Lee Anderson (United States), Carmen Aristegui (Mexico), Martín Caparrós (Argentina), Carlos Fernando Chamorro (Nicaragua) and María Jesús Espinosa de los Monteros (Spain), Héctor Feliciano (Puerto Rico), Jean-François Fogel (France), Monica González (Chile), Leila Guerriero (Argentina), Sergio Ramírez (Nicaragua), Germán Rey (Colombia), Luz Mely Reyes (Venezuela), and Natália Viana (Brazil).

*Rosental Alves is the director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, which produces the LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).