On the evening of 9 June 2010, the people of the Southern Brazilian state Paraná took to the streets. 30,000 residents stood in the cold air that night, in protests that covered 15 cities. Some held signs calling for greater transparency, others waved state flags and chanted to the music of a local band. Some were dressed in costume, others sang the national anthem. With the noise of the protesters behind him, one student demonstrator told a reporter “[This day] will truly be a milestone to start changing the history of Paraná.”
They were demonstrating in response to the Diarios Secretos, or Secret Diaries, a ground-breaking investigative journalism project led by four Brazilian journalists – James Alberti, Katia Brembatti, Karlos Kohlbach and Gabriel Tabatcheik – that led to the biggest-ever scandal at Paraná’s legislative assembly.
For two years the team of journalists had been investigating and compiling data on assembly spending. Combing through more than 750 assembly memos, they analysed and compiled all registries in the assembly’s payroll, painstakingly recording more than 15,000 lines of data. Once complete, they published their reports on Brazilian news networks.
What the journalists reported drove thousands onto the streets to call for justice. From deceased employees on the active payroll, to “ghost employees” hired to receive a salary they later transferred to their employer, the journalists claimed that millions of dollars were being systematically rerouted from public funds into private bank accounts.
The reports quickly sparked major action from the state powers. Directors that were implicated in the scandal lost their jobs, and criminal investigations were opened. The assembly introduced greater oversight on hirings and made it easier for citizens to access public information. According to the journalists, the number of employees at the assembly ultimately dropped by more than 1,000. They estimate that these changes could be saving the state as much as US$5 million each month.
Transparency International and the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute), awarded the four Brazilian journalists the 2011 Latin American Investigative Journalism Award. Illustrating the power of transparency, their story shows what can happen when an independent media helps citizens access the information they need to stand up and demand change. In the words of the student protester, history is set in motion.