Journalists from 11 countries join efforts for website covering the Lava Jato corruption scandal

A political scandal that transcends borders, such as Operation Car Wash –the network of corruption and money laundering that originated in Brazil and involves politicians and businessmen from several countries– requires cross-border, collaborative and persistent journalistic work.

With that in mind, Peru's investigative journalism site Convoca and Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo teamed up with 20 journalists from 11 media outlets in nine other countries to launch the online platform Investiga Lava Jato (Investigate Lava Jato), a portal with a goal to develop and disseminate in-depth reports on a corruption scheme that has spread beyond the continent.

Investiga Lava Jato, which launched on June 4, also aims to form a community to share information among media outlets in different countries, to learn about the methodology of journalistic research processes and to find patterns of corruption in the nations involved in the scandal, in order to enrich the research of the participating publications.

"As we progressed in our inquiries, we realized that there were many characters, and the facts –as with corruption– transcend boundaries, so we saw that a collaborative effort was needed," Convoca director Milagros Salazar told the Knight Center.

"We saw that there were different rhythms of inquiries in different countries. In Latin America, coverage was not being made from the basis of investigative journalism, beyond breaking news. It wasn’t until December 2016, when the U.S. Department of Justice decided to make public the information provided by the conglomerate Odebrecht, that the majority of media in the region began to look at the subject in greater depth and to be interested in the cases.”

Investiga Lava Jato made its debut with two investigations: "Evidence of Odebrecht’s payment of bribes in Argentina” (Las pruebas de los pagos de las coimas de Odebrecht en Argentina), from Argentina media outlet Diario Perfil, and "Odebrecht paid more than 13 million dollars in bribes for megaprojects in Venezuela" (“Odebrecht pagó más de 13 millones de dólares en sobornos por megaproyectos en Venezuela”), from Venezuelan sites Runrun.es and El Pitazo.

A week after its launch, the site has published four more investigations on cases about the Lava Jato network in Mexico, Brazil and Peru.

Investiga Lava Jato had its origins in investigative journalism about the bribes of Brazilian construction companies, such as Odebrecht and OAS, that Peruvian media like Convoca and IDL Reporteros began to publish in 2015. At the time, most media in that Andean country were not raising the issue.

As a result of these investigations, Convoca promoted an initial platform called Lava Jato en América Latina, which launched earlier this year, that featured investigative reports and news stories from allied media, such as IDL Reporteros of Peru, Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción, Ciper from Chile, Sudestada from Uruguay, La Prensa from Panama and La Nación, from Argentina.

"As there was a growing interest and we saw some reports that were coming up, and that everything was scattered, what I did was to integrate the various reports of colleagues so one site would have all the investigative work, with the aim of helping to diffuse work that colleagues were doing,” Salazar said of Lava Jato en América Latina.

This first platform also included an interactive map, which is also used in Investiga Lava Jato, and which shows the South American geographic distribution of the investigated officials. Additionally, it also included podcasts produced on the subject by Convoca's internet radio team.

As judicial and informational investigations on the case progressed, journalists realized that the branches of the network of corruption spread to more countries, such as Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, and even discovered that the bribes of the companies involved had reached countries beyond the Latin American region, such as Mozambique and Angola.

Therefore, Convoca decided to take the project to the next stage and to create this second platform, now not only with the aim of compiling the investigations of the media involved, but of joining efforts with more media outlets and carrying out deeper joint reports on the new findings.

"We decided that Milagros (Salazar) and I would coordinate the platform together, she would do more coordination of the site, the links with colleagues, and I would do the coordination part related to the content because the database is in Brazil, and we have the longest memory of the case, of the people involved," Flávio Ferreira, a journalist from Folha de S. Paulo, told the Knight Center. "We are coordinating the work as a project coordinated by Convoca and Folha de S. Paulo."

Journalists from Convoca (Peru), Folha de Sao Paulo (Brazil), Diario Perfil (Argentina), portal Mil Hojas (Ecuador), El Faro (El Salvador), Plaza Pública (Guatemala), Mexicanos contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad (Mexico), Venezuelan news sites Runrun.es and El Pitazo, and Jornal Verdade (Mozambique) participate in Investiga Lava Jato. Journalists and data analysts from ColombiaCheck and Consejo de Redacción, in Colombia, and the Regional Initiative for Investigative Journalism in Latin America from ICFJ and Connectas are also involved.

"Now this project is a work of production investigative production, not just diffusion," Salazar said. "At this moment the project is a global project. We decided to lead it with the participation of all those journalists with the objective of transcending the game of statements so that the facts emerge. "

Salazar said that Investiga Lava Jato has a special emphasis on supporting journalists from countries with more social problems and obstacles to accessing to information, such as Venezuela or Angola, where collaboration is particularly necessary. And this collaboration goes from updating journalists on the progress of Lava Jato's judicial investigation processes to sharing documents in order to delve into issues that they have not been able to deepen because they do not have the collaboration of the prosecutors in their own countries.

"I would say that our work is for the audience, but there is also internal work, towards  becoming a community of journalists who collaborate together, who work together, sharing knowledge, who together will publish revelations, facts of public interest," Salazar said. "But in addition, we learn together because much of Lava Jato's coverage has to do with understanding this complexity of the facts."

Investiga Lava Jato's in-house work consists of online training for journalists, technological assistance in topics such as sharing documents safely online and maintaining secure communication channels through encrypted chats. Journalists also have virtual meetings at least once a week.

"The greatest lesson has been to foster collaboration among colleagues," Raul Olmos, a journalist with the organization Mexicans against Corruption and Impunity, told the Knight Center. "That can help us so that our information flows faster and so that the impact of our investigations multiplies, which is what most interests us, which has an impact.”

Being a platform that includes countries beyond Latin America, the coordinators of Investiga Lava Jato plan in the medium-term to translate part of the research into other languages, such as Portuguese and English, although for the moment, all the content is in Spanish.

Each investigation is funded by the media outlet that carries it out, and the platform is supported by funds provided by Convoca readers. However, the organization is seeking funds from international organizations to make the project sustainable.

Investiga Lava Jato's journalists have analyzed more than 8,000 documents and have built databases in conjunction with data from 10 countries. The community of investigative journalists plans to continue tracking documents and information in the countries involved and interviewing key individuals in the case.

"The project has been growing and we have seen that there is the intention of being able to transcend the political game of the confessions of the companies and of the investigated officials themselves, to transcend the 'says, says, says' to delve into the facts, to review files, interview people, and exchange information, so that it’s the facts that emerge and that those facts contribute to end this impunity and this entire system of corruption,” Salazar said.

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.