Journalists dissect the Lava Jato scandal using investigative reports and interactive tools

Those involved in the Lava Jato scandal, the bribery scheme formed by Brazilian companies and politicians from at least 12 countries, resorted to sophisticated methods of corruption, such as the use of offshore companies, the creation of accounts in tax havens and overcharges in public works contracts. And of course, they also took care that their actions did not leave a trace.

For this reason, the case presented significant complexity for authorities and journalists.

Plea-bargain testimonies, legal agreements that consist of reducing convictions of the accused in exchange for information that helps to solve a case, have been the source of many journalistic reports on the case.

But even before the first arrests were made and the first testimonies were recorded, journalists from various parts of Latin America were already investigating and uncovering cases of corruption related to Lava Jato with their own sources.

In the first part of this article, journalists from several countries explained how cross-border collaborations and structured partnerships have been fundamental in their coverage of the Lava Jato case. They also detailed the obstacles standing in the way of bringing information on the topic to society.

In this second installment, the journalists told the Knight Center how they have managed to go beyond the agenda dictated by authorities, how they obtained their own sources and which tools they used to explain such a complicated issue to their readers.

Investigations emerge not only from testimonies

Some of the features that make the Lava Jato case special are its complexity in terms of the number of people involved and the level of sophistication of the methods of corruption used in bids for projects. Therefore, for both the justice system and journalists, it has been difficult to find evidence of illegal acts through documentary evidence.

That is why the legal structure of the plea-bargain testimonies in Brazil has played a key role for investigations.

“Showing that there was a difference of value in the works -- a contract addition -- does not show corruption because the additions are normal. Then that angle, journalistically, is insufficient,” Connectas director Carlos Eduardo Huertas said. “The issue is how to show the irregularity, and logically the testimonies have been fundamental there.”

“Bribery leaves no trace, tax havens have a secret by which it is impossible to know the beneficiaries of the societies, so it is impossible to know, because by official records you do not see the real owner,” added Sol Lauría, data researcher at Connectas. “They are crimes that are very difficult to investigate as a journalist, and for the justice system as well.”

However, journalists have not relied solely on the information derived from judicial investigations and have repeatedly produced coverage independent from the authorities’ agenda, often surpassing them.

In 2015, before the awards were announced, journalists from the Peruvian non-profit investigative journalism organization IDL-Reporteros traveled to Brazil and managed to interview characters involved in the Lava Jato operation, and obtained sources that would be key to their future reports.

“On that trip, we obtained an initial statement and investigations then began in Peru because we managed to interview one of the 'doleiros' or a foreign exchange trader who was the right arm of Alberto Youssef, who was the trafficker of currencies with whom the investigation was initiated,” Romina Mella, IDL-Reporters journalist, told the Knight Center. “There he told how they had brought money and other foreign exchange traffickers to Peru to pay bribes related to the construction company OAS.”

In January 2016 in Brazil, Folha de S. Paulo published one of its first impactful reports on Lava Jato in which it used sources separate from authorities. It was revealed that the family of former president Lula Da Silva occupied a property in the Brazilian city of Atibaia that was paid for by the Odebrecht company. It was an investigation with its own sources supported by data journalism, whose revelations were confirmed months later by the confessions of company executives.

The report not only put the issue on the agendas of media outlets and authorities, but led to the opening of a police investigation and a subsequent case from the Federal Prosecutor’s Office of Brazil against Lula da Silva.

Another example of a report that was carried out independent of the plea-bargain testimonies was one published by the Chilean site CIPER in November 2016, in which links are revealed between the company OAS and people close to Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, and with her rival in the 2013 presidential elections, Marco Enríquez-Ominami. The article was made possible by the fact that CIPER was able to access a series of WhatsApp messages exchanged by Leo Pinheiro, former president of OAS who was sentenced to prison in 2015 in relation to the Lava Jato investigation.

“The documentation in Chile is secret because it is part of an investigation process of the Public Prosecutor.  It’s difficult to access official documents that allow us to continue building the network,” journalist Alberto Arellano, author of the report, told the Knight Center. “[The information disclosed] It is not public information, it is information that circulates in some media. I obtained it through a source that I can not reveal.”

For journalists following the Lava Jato case, it is important to continue to find ways to cover the scandal without depending so much on the revelations of the authorities, in part because those involved often given partial versions. This is where collaboration with colleagues from other countries plays a key role.

“That's why we need to collaborate, because that way we have more people thinking about how to look for sources that can tell the truth that results from the facts and not the truth that comes from the complainants or from the authorities,” Ferreira said. “There is still a lot to discover and we journalists have to discover which are the lies, the omissions from these testimonies, and what executives do not want to reveal.”

Tools to unravel the web

For the average reader, it is not so easy to understand a network as complex as that of the Lava Jato case in the first attempt. Journalists are aware of this, so they have given themselves the task of thinking about different ways of presenting the information so that their message reaches the audience in the most understandable way.

Most of the journalistic work carried out in Latin America on the case is published as long-form reports. However, almost all draw on alternative narratives and tools to facilitate the digestion of information.

“The infographics, I think, are key, especially when there are webs of societies or of people to identify,” said Alberto Arellano, of CIPER. “The narratives of Convoca and of Ojo Público are very well done, they seem powerful. There are a wide range of formats that one can come up with. I continue to believe in the value of the text, regardless of its length, even more if it is supported by infographics that allow the information the be more easily digested.”

Video and other audiovisual resources are also of great help to media outlets that seek to explain the Lava Jato case, especially on social networks. On Twitter and Facebook, where the audience does not usually spend a lot of time consuming the same information, the use of videos and animated gifs is optimal to engage people and lead them to read the investigations.

“We tried to synthesize the content of the investigation into videos that we circulate on social networks and they have had a positive impact,” Raúl Olmos, a journalist with the site Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity, told the Knight Center. “We try to complement the information with products that make it more accessible, more attractive, or that at least arouse the interest of people, especially the younger audience, about this content that should be of public interest because it addresses a serious problem in our country, which is corruption.”

Other media outlets have gone further. For a more fluid consumption of information, some publications have developed digital platforms that use multiple tools, such as text reports, videos, infographics, interactive maps and documents, among others.

The Investiga Lava Jato site, coordinated by Convoca and Folha de S.Paulo, launched a cross-platform report on the cost overrun of contracts awarded to Odebrecht in countries in Latin America and Africa. The report includes the application “VíaSobrecosto,”  a tool with versions for the computer and mobile devices, which has a search engine by country, a map, a file for each work investigated and rankings on the findings.

“VíaSobrecosto” has official data from public institutions and the construction company Odebrecht, according to what is written on the site’s introduction. In the application, you can follow the route of the money from works awarded to the conglomerate in countries where it allegedly paid bribes in the last 15 years.

“Like the infographics, I think the platforms synthesize things a lot,” Raúl Olmos added. “We should no longer necessarily think about desktop reports, but for mobile phones, so that we can make the reports more accessible. Sometimes, when you read reports on mobile, it is complicated. The idea is to see how we can make it more attractive and easier to see, more accessible.”

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.