Latin American professionals debate possibilities and challenges to consolidating collaboration among journalists in the region

In the second week of November, journalists from at least 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries crossed the Atlantic Ocean and met in Johannesburg, South Africa, to share investigative techniques with colleagues from around the world and seek strategies to consolidate collaboration among journalists in the region.

The 10th edition of the Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC) ended on Nov. 19 in the largest South African city, bringing together more than 1,200 media professionals from 130 countries. Of these, at least 30 were Latin Americans, according to the Global Network of Investigative Journalism (GIJN).

The devastation caused by the Lava Jato operation, which starting from Brazil revealed a network of political and business corruption that has spread to at least 12 other countries in the region, has encouraged collaboration among Latin American journalists in the last three years. At GIJC 2017, professionals from the region proposed to think about how to extend cooperation between journalists beyond this topic.

For Carlos Eduardo Huertas, director of CONNECTAS, a platform for journalistic innovation in Latin America, the biggest theme in the region is the abuse of power. "There it is: abuse of power of politically elected regimes, of politically moored regimes, and from other powerful groups, which in the region are many: criminal powers, outside the law, and there are also corporate powers,” he told the Knight Center.

In fact, abuse of power runs through the themes suggested by Fabián Werner, co-founder and director of Sudestada, the Uruguayan website for investigative and data journalism, and Vanina Berghella, director of FOPEA (Argentine Journalism Forum), who also spoke with the Knight Center about collaboration among journalists in the region.

Drug trafficking, corruption, organized crime and money laundering, illicit acts that cross Latin American borders, were cited by journalists as potential topics for collaborative investigation, as well as gender violence, migratory flows and policies, and human trafficking. Werner stressed, however, the illegal financing of political campaigns among the issues that deserve a regional approach.

“The Odebrecht case in Brazil is very clear, it went through virtually every country in Latin America. We did a project in 2014 on the financing of political campaigns in Uruguay, and we discovered that there are companies in Brazil and Paraguay that could not donate, but nevertheless they do so. I think that is a phenomenon that can be explored in a regional way: to what extent transnational companies, which have their origin in the region, but also many that have their origin outside, are influencing public policies through the financing of politics?”

This issue also involves extractive corporations, which have interests in several countries in the region, the Uruguayan journalist said. Berghella also highlighted this theme, especially in relation to mining companies, logging companies and fishing companies. "In Latin America we have natural resources of great interest and of great value, and I believe that we have a niche there to see what is happening with companies and governments, in which society is still not very involved,” the Argentine journalist said.

For Werner, a regional collaboration forged mostly between small, independent and digital media outlets, offers more freedom to deal with issues that are often left out of coverage from larger media. "I think that independent media have more flexibility and greater possibilities to get out of normal coverage and generate alliances that allow other topics to be put on the table, that perhaps the traditional media, because they have profit interests, or conflicts of interest or commercial, advertising or political commitments, can not follow.”

Generosity is crucial, but it is not enough

Huertas, from CONNECTAS, pointed out that one of the crucial factors of collaborative journalism, which enhances the ability to produce stories that have a transnational impact, is generosity.

“The Panama Papers and Paradise Papers were produced because two journalists received information and they generously shared it with a structure that has built bonds of trust with other journalists,” he told the Knight Center. “That is disruptive, the disruption, which is a bet on the part of Connectas, comes from a change of methodologies. The disruption doesn’t necessarily come because we use more technological toys, the issue is with what head and with what heart are you using those toys.”

For the Colombian journalist, Latin America is fertile ground for collaboration between journalists. Under each stone we find a good story,” he said. “We have valuable, courageous people, committed as a trade, to produce these kinds of stories.”

While there are plenty of common themes and good stories, the challenges are also significant and impact the region as a whole. For Huertas, the first is to improve professional standards. “Making things possible means changing professional paradigms that have been established in the region,” he said. “We need to improve techniques and professional standards – if it is said that you are going to have something in a certain time, you have it in a certain time. That is the basis of the construction of trust, not only personally, but also professionally.”

Berghella also mentioned the more "loose" professional practices as one of the difficulties in consolidating collaboration in the region. “Not everyone plans, organizes as much. Perhaps in the Anglo-Saxon world they do have that question of medium- and long-term planning. We say yes, all right, we have a coffee, a beer, and that's it. I have a bit of an Anglo-Saxon mind, like the planning thing.”

Another challenge to be overcome in regional cooperation, and even to ensure the existence of the media collaborating, is the financing, as Berghella and Werner recalled. “It is difficult in the region to find a kind of local philanthropy,” the Uruguayan said. “So we have to go out looking for financiers in the United States or in Europe, or generate more independent forms of financing, such as crowdfunding or membership clubs, or resort to parallel mechanisms such as journalism courses, journalistic writing workshops, that is, things more linked to the teaching of journalism than with the exercise of journalism itself.”

“We all have goodwill,” said Berghella. “But [without funding] it is difficult to put us to work because everyone has their priorities.” The director of FOPEA affirmed that this included the possibility of regional cooperation in projects presented to international funders such as Unesco and Open Society, which have increasingly required a comparative view among countries.

“We recently had a meeting with a funder, we wanted to work on access to information issues. When we sat down with the donor he told us ‘but not only Argentina.’ Like this, directly,” she said to the Knight Center. “So ‘ok,’ we said, ‘we think that by logic we can work with Brazil, with Uruguay and Chile, do you think it's ok?’ Then it seems to me that this is a clear example: the donor proposes to us, or in some way demands us, and I think it is logical and that it is good, we can think of a regional, comparative logic.” This approach also allows funding to be shared among more than one media, Berghella explained.

For the Argentine journalist, this collaborative logic is at the heart of Latin American societies. Despite linguistic and cultural differences, since the Paraguayan War (1864-1870), the region has not had major conflicts and its peoples have shared a growing sense of cooperation and integration, which goes well with recent advances in collaborative journalism.

“It has been demonstrated in recent years that without collaborative, transnational, global journalism, we would not have learned about great things that have had an impact and caused benefits that perhaps we still can not measure,” the FOPEA director said. “I believe that there is an important principle of integration in our Latin American societies. If we translate this into journalistic logic, we will succeed.”

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.

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