PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad – Despite the threat of violence and retribution from public officials, journalists are playing a central role in uncovering corruption and organized crime in Latin America and throughout the world, experts said.
Investigative journalism is becoming more dangerous, especially in countries like Mexico, where six reporters were killed during a 50-day span this spring. But the importance of this kind of reporting is vital, particularly as criminal organizations have gone global.
A 2011 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates criminal organizations earn US$2.1 trillion a year, half of which comes via the illicit drug trade.
Nearly US$0.70 of every dollar earned by criminal groups is laundered, which often involves financial institutions, construction projects and companies based around the world, the report stated.
Though their challenges are vast, journalists have more tools than ever to expose corruption and organized crime, thanks in large part to the explosion of technology, said David Kaplan, director of the Global Center for Investigative Journalism.
There are “new innovations, new technologies and new platforms,” he said. “The growing networks and collaborations are going to find ways to keep breaking stories.”
Galina Sidorova, the incoming chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI), which concluded its three-day world meeting in Trinidad on June 26, agrees with Kaplan.
“We have a unique opportunity to bring together the traditional tools of investigation with the new models [of journalism] and they can act as a fantastic supplement to each other,” she said.
More than 110 organizations dedicated to investigative journalism have emerged worldwide, including several in Latin America that are providing training and support for local journalists.
After years as a newspaper journalist, Adriana León started the Institute for Press and Society in Peru to work with reporters in the South American country on investigations into corruption and crime.
“A reporter can spend two or three or four months on these investigations, and often the outlets do not have the funds to support these types of investigations,” she said.
León’s institute tries to fill in the gaps by providing grants for reporters to pursue specific stories, she said.
In neighboring Colombia, Juanita León – no relation to Adriana – opened LaSillaVacia.com, an Internet news outlet dedicated to investigating the government and public entities. In just three years, it has become one of the most influential online publications in the country, drawing 300,000 unique visitors a month, she said.
The website, which has focused on large-scale investigations, is funded through foreign donors and local advertisers, providing it with an independence to pursue stories traditional media have ignored.
“In Colombia, for many years journalists have focused on criminals, and we didn’t pay enough attention to legal enablers [like officials who pave the path for criminal enterprises],” she said. “We try to focus on enablers and understand the relations between legal faces and illegal ones and try to make evident the connection [to the readers].”
The outlet is one of many to open in the region in recent years. But while the number of journalistic organizations is on the rise, so too are the threats reporters face.
IPI members said they were concerned with the level of violence against journalists.
“War, organized crime and pervasive corruption create a deadly climate for journalists in many countries,” said IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie in her annual report, adding journalists are being killed in record numbers throughout the world.
At least six journalists in Mexico and three in Honduras have been killed thus far in 2012, making those two countries the most dangerous in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the IPI’s Death Watch, which tracks murders of journalists. A total of 15 journalists have been killed in the region so far in 2012.
Along with the dangerous job of covering narco-trafficking, journalists in Latin America are working in corrupt states where officials discourage or silence critical reporting.
Worldwide anti-corruption organization Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perception Index ranks Venezuela and Haiti among the world’s most corrupt countries.
Several other Latin American countries, including Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua rank within the second tier. The index is based on surveys and assessments conducted within the countries.
Officials in those countries utilize everything from slander and libel laws to the withholding of government advertising funds and public information to stifle reporters.
Guyana-based Stabroek News temporarily lost all its paid advertisements from the government for parts of 2006 and 2010 without receiving a credible reason from officials, Anand Persaud, the daily newspaper’s editor-in-chief, said at the conference.
Eleanora Rabinovich, director of the Freedom of Expression Program in Argentina, said it’s common for governments to use their advertising dollars as a leveraging tool with media outlets throughout Latin America.
“Many times governments use advertising to manipulate publications,” she said.
Worldwide investigative journalism organizations: Global Investigative Journalism Network, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and 100Reporters.