By Daniel Guerra
When Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab received the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, she cemented her role as one of Mexico’s top experts of using the country’s transparency and freedom of information laws.
And in a video interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas during Investigative Reporters and Editors' 34th conference last week, where von Bertrab and the New York Times' David Barstow received the organization's 2012 award in the large print/online category, the Mexican journalist adviced her colleagues to take advantage now of the freedom and access gained from these types of laws.
“It is a door that has been opened, after many years of being closed,” von Bertrab said. “It is a door that once again could be closed.”
Von Bertrab and Barstow received the Pulitzer after their reports on the vast corruption and bribery practices of Walmart in Mexico. The aftermath of their reporting led to widespread criticisms on the company’s business practices in Mexico, as well as ongoing investigations by both the U.S. and Mexican governments.
Von Bertrab spent 18 months collecting information for the stories, a process she referred as “terribly boring.” In total, she submitted 800 official requests for information and conducted 200 interviews with federal, state, and local government officials. It took her several years to truly understand how to effectively use transparency laws for her investigations, she said.
“I come from the ‘no’ generation, where everything was confidential,” said von Bertrab, a reporting veteran of more than 20 years. “I learned how to be a reporter understanding that all documents were not accessible.”
A past recipient of Mexico’s National Journalism Prize, von Bertrab began her career in Guadalajara, Mexico, covering issues such as drug trafficking, political assassinations, and human rights. Beside her work with The New York Times, she has written for numerous Mexican newspapers and magazines.
It's hard work, but von Bertrab said journalists in Mexico can better understand how their governmental institutions work by dedicating the time to learn about transparency laws and digging for information.
"I am not sure at this moment what us reporters can do to ensure those doors remain open, but for right now, we need to take advantage that they are there," said von Bertrab.
In any case, she said, both reporters and citizens must be “more daring” and educate themselves on how to effectively use transparency laws.
“I hope that it also spreads to others and encourages journalists and citizens alike to use this tool as a way to participate and intervene in the decision-making process.”
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.