Plaza Pública is an online, independent, non-profit newspaper that began at the start of this year in Guatemala. In an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, journalist Martín Rodríguez Pellecer, founder and director of the site, described the newspaper as a platform in which citizens can discuss and debate and hold others accountable. Plaza Pública has dedicated itself to investigating and covering topics that the traditional Guatemalan press has considered taboo, such as the agrarian situation, corruption among governments and businesses, and drug trafficking. As Guatemala's presidential elections, Nov. 6, approach, Rodríguez spoke about the trajectory of Plaza Pública, the impact the site generated when it published the WikiLeaks diplomatic cables, and the challenges of pursuing in-depth, investigative journalism in Guatemala.
Rodríguez, 28, was a journalist for the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre from 2001 to 2007, when he won the Press and Society Institute and Transparency International’s Latin American Investigative Journalism Award and started to publish his column, Wachk Aj for elPeriódico and his blog.
This interview is the first in a series by the Knight Center on independent, non-profit journalism projects in Latin America. For more about Plaza Pública, see this video with editor Julie Lopez.
Knight Center: In the last few months, Plaza Pública has become an important news reference in Guatemala. How did this project being? What does the name mean? What’s the publication’s mission? What distinguishes Plaza Pública from other publications in the country?
Martín Rodríguez: Thanks for the compliment but we don’t really consider ourselves a journalistic reference point. In the last eight months we’ve probably become a breath of fresh air for the readers in Guatemala and beyond because the traditional media tend to be very superficial, conservative and dependent on businesses and now, politicians.
Plaza Pública was created when the Jesuit University Rafael Landívar contacted me in August 2010 with the proposal to create an investigative journalism platform. It’s every journalist’s dream: run a newspaper that digs deep, that doesn’t depend on advertising, and doesn’t have to cozy up to politicians. After negotiations on topics like autonomy, we launched the project in earnest and I gathered a team of five experienced and committed journalists, photographers and a webmaster.
At Plaza Pública we’re part of a university, which we’re very happy about, and from our first editorial that laid out our mission statement we declared ourselves independent. The university gives us total autonomy to decide the content of the publication.
The name comes from Habermas, who believed that the media in a democracy have to operate like public spheres where the people can discuss, argue and supervise one another and the powers that be.
Our mission is to make journalism. We aim for in-depth journalism, independent and investigative journalism but at the end of the day, the goal traditional and some alternative media forget is journalism. We want to broaden the information about the country, make overlooked topics like the relationship between politics and the economy, politics and organized crime, and social topics part of the national discussion.
KC: How is the project supported? Who finances it? What is Plaza Pública doing to maintain itself over the long run?
MR: The university pays our salaries, provides us an office and support too because we write about heavy subjects like politics or organized crime. We’re thankful to have strong institutional support too so we’re left out at sea. We have contact with them in an editorial capacity through the vice chacellors of research and administration, the director of public advocacy, an independent journalist and myself. The mission of this council is to be sure we keep to the values in the first editorial that lays out our principles and what we want to contribute to Guatemalan democracy.
We also have a grant from the Open Society Institute’s Media Program, based in London for $100,000 annually. This allows us to pay our staff’s salaries and purchase equipment. The university also supports us with $200,000.
The university is committed to supporting Plaza Pública as part of a five-year plan. After 2012, we’ll start to solicit donations from individuals and institutions and open the site to small amounts of advertising.
KC: How would you describe your staff? It’s interesting to see that your blog section draws from a diverse base of contributors. How do you solicit the participation of other journsalits and interact with the reader?
MR: We started with four journalists, all with media experience ranging from five to 20 years. They were all tired of the lack of independence in the traditional print media and had a great desire to write dynamic, independent and profound journalism. We started to plan all this in December 2010. I was in Bogotá, Colombia seeing the experience of La Silla Vacía, Verdad Abierta, Semana, and El Faro in El Salvador. I spoke with Carlos Fernando Chamorro in Nicaragua about his experience with El Confidential.
On Jan. 3, 2011, we started ot prepare the newpaper. Four journalists, one administrative assistant, one web and graphic editor, and some university students. Today, we’re a staff of 22 with two editors, four professional reporters, two graphic artists, a photograher, two programmers, two administrative assitants and seven students.
It’s a young staff with a lot of ambition and a desire to make good journalism. We also work with a group of 30 or so collaborators for our blogs. We selected them thinking, who had the most interesting things to say and not a lot of opportunities in other outlets. We’ve achieved a good balance and still aim to present more ethnic and cultural perspectives.
KC: Who is your target audience and who actually reads Plaza Pública?
MR: Plaza Pública is aimed at anyone that wants to read more in-depth news about Guatemala. In the country there are almost 3 million Internet users, 9 million adolescents and adults, mostly concentrated in urban areas. We get between 10,000 and 15,000 unique hits each week and from our Facebook fans we can assume that most of them are urban, middle to upper class, mestizos and white.
We want to reach decision makers but above all we want to contribute to the construction of a more critical media, an independent media.
KC: Central America is currently one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. What challenges and risks to investigative journalists face in Guatemala? What implications does this have for Plaza Pública?
MR: Well, the region was more dangerous 30 years ago, when it was closer to a black hole. Today, there are still dangers but they’re more manageable, especially in Guatemala City where there’s more institutionalism than in the countryside. Journalists face risks like pressure from politicians and businesspeople, upsetting a drug trafficker or facing prosecution from politicians, misuse of the publication’s name in smear campaigns; they’re all occupational hazards.
What’s difficult is when politicians boycott us and impose a blackout, “because we ask uncomfortable question,” and it’s easier for them to answer a call from traditional media. That said, it doesn’t make our jobs impossible.
KC: Plaza Pública has made a name for itself by covering topics usually considered taboo or ones that only receive superficial or biased treatment by the traditional media. Some of the big topics you’ve tackled include the agrarian situation, the food crisis, corruption, and the links between the state and organized crime. Why did you decide to focus on these topics and what has been the response so far?
MR: Covering these topics is Plaza Pública’s raison d’être. It’s why we wanted to create a more independent media, to cover corruption in public works, the links between organized crime and the state, the stories of the marginalized working in the agricultural sector. We’re tired of not seeing these issues on the front pages and screens of the mainstream media. We consider these topics essential to understanding the situation in the country so that all citizens have more information and more sovereignty.
They’ve called us communists, because many of the powerful people here can’t relate to the independence. These same groups are taken aback because they’re used to media companies with agendas, that go out to ruin people without any accountability and to report in a balanced—which is not to say objective—way. In this sense, many don’t understand what we’re doing, which can be summarized in one word: journalism. On the other side, there’s recognition by the powers that be that we work hard and are disciplined.
MR: WikiLeaks put us on another level, nationally and internationally. It was an announcement that we were here and part of the national debate and that we had made ourselves the most independent media source in the nation in less than six months. Plaza Pública was the youngest, smallest and last of the 50 outlets to get the exclusive cables.
It surprised us, naively, that the mainstream media, like Prensa Libre, Siglo21, etc., totally ignored the cables after they had begged WikiLeaks to hand them over. It showed their lack of independence and injured pride.
After we published the cables, our site traffic tripled and launched us into the political world.
KC: The presidential runoff is between two candidates that have not demonstrated an interest in encouraging an independent press. Plaza Pública recently denounced a smear campaign that involved the publication. What does it mean for you that they used Plaza Pública’s name in this way? How do you see the future of journalism in Guatemala over the next four years? For Plaza Pública?
MR: Well, on one side it’s almost a compliment that they mentioned Plaza Pública because it shows that we have enough credibility to be used against someone. On the other, it shows the perversity of the Líder political party, who we think was responsible for this.
The outlook for the press in Guatemala isn’t optimistic. I don’t really know how tolerant the Patriotic Party and their ex-military friends will be. Manuel Baldizón is a legitimate threat to freedom of the press since he believes in an authoritarian vision of a subservient press, used to discredit other journalists or censor his critics.
Add to this the threat of organized crime.
KC: In you opinion, what is the press’ role in widening and deepening democracy in a “post-conflict” Guatemala?
MR: The role of the press is key to supporting the citizens so they have complete, in-depth information to help them make the best decisions in their personal and political life. While I think it’s far from being the fourth estate in a democracy, I do believe an independent press can be a counterweight to those in power. Also, it’s very important to remember that our obligation is not only to control those in the executive and legislative branches of government but all those with power, starting with businesspeople and ending with citizens.
Guatemala has been an authoritarian country since before the armed conflict and the dictatorships of the last 30 years. This has contributed to an authoritarian state, illegality and organized crime. The only way to combat this is with the written word.
KC: What journalistic projects inspire you? Does Plaza Pública collaborate with others?
MR: Yes, there’s a lot that inspires us. El Faro in El Salvador, La Silla Vacía in Bogotá, El Confidential in Nicaragua, ProPublica in New York. We have partnerships with many of them to distribute content for free. But we’re also inspired by groups that aren’t completely digital, like Semana in Colombia and the EFE Spanish language news agency, which provides us with free content thanks to the EFE Foundation, or El País in Spain. Ultimately, what we do here is classic journalism.
KC: Where does Plaza Pública see itself see itself in the medium and long term? What potential and limits do you see for digital media and social networks, considering that Guatemala remains a country with low Internet access, especially in rural areas.
MR: Guatemala has 3 million Internet users. That’s a third of all the adults and young people in the country and growing. We still have room to grow and we’ll get there. This is a long term project. We decided to follow ProPublica’s model of a creative commons license, which is to say we allow people to freely use our material if they cite us. We’re the first Central American media outlet with a Copyleft license. ProPublica has come to agreements with the New York Times and the Washington Post to publish their reports. We tried to do the same here but the mainstream media aren’t very mature and believe the only stories worth telling are their own.
We do have an agreement with La Hora, which is a small evening publication; another agreement with a community and educational radio station called IGER run by Jesuits, and; we’re in the early stages of an agreement with television channels. One of our principle tasks is to grow and reach the largest audience possible.
In the next five to 10 years, we see ourselves as one of the most serious and quality publications on the continent; the vanguard for journalism and technology, encouraging the next generation of journalists. We want to help the citizens of Guatemala and Central America to have a more complete and critical view of their countries and democracies so they’ll have more power and sovereignty in relation to the authorities and the powers that be.