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Investigative journalists as anti-corruption activists: An interview with Gerardo Reyes

An independent media is crucial for the illustration of the devastating effects of corruption around the world. Journalism acts as a public watchdog on the abuse of power – it enables people to demand accountability from leaders by providing citizens with the information they need to stand up to corruption. The annual Transparency International and Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute, IPYS) Latin American Investigative Journalism Award recognises outstanding investigative journalism in Latin American and Caribbean media.

In 2012, three Brazilian journalists were named as the winners of the Latin American Investigative Journalism Award. The journalists produced a series of reports that eventually brought down Dilma Rousseff’s Chief of Staff. The reporters started their work following a simple and isolated piece of information: the purchase of a luxury apartment in São Paulo. They then came across other leads and patiently followed them until they managed to discover and expose a huge illicit enrichment scheme. This piece of investigative journalism work came at an important time for Brazil, ahead of the resignation of a further seven ministers allegedly involved in corruption scandals.

Gerardo Reyes is a member of the jury of the award. With nominations open for the 2013 edition, we asked him about the links between investigative journalism and corruption as well as the trends he perceives in those areas. Reyes is also the Director of the Investigative Unit at the Univision Network winning a Peabody Award for the “Fast & Furious” case.

In what way, do you believe, does investigative journalism contribute to the fight against corruption?

I do not have the scientific answer to that question. I don’t know of any studies that measure the concrete impact that investigative journalism has on corruption and I do think that someone should consider this challenge. There are, however, some implications that help to evaluate its usefulness, for example the opening of official investigations as a consequence of allegations made by the media or the adoption of legal reforms to punish conduct described in the media. Unfortunately, investigations that are started by authorities as a result of a media campaign almost always get archived or diluted and the follow-up that the media themselves do is poor. In general, investigative journalists settle for the “social sanction” that their articles produce; in other words, the public scorn against the people or institutions involved.

The 2011 award went to a series of reports that detailed the alleged misuse of public funds by the Legislative Assembly in the Brazilian state of Paraná. The investigation concluded that millions of dollars in public funds were being diverted by the assembly. Following the publication, at least 30,000 people across Paraná took to the streets to call for something to be done. Since then, the Public Ministry opened investigations and directors implicated in the scandal have lost their posts at the assembly. The assembly has also introduced greater oversight on hirings and improved its processes for accessing public information.

Was there a specific investigative report related to corruption in the past few years that you find particularly inspiring due the change that it helped create?

There are very good examples of substantial impact caused by the journalistic investigations awarded by the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute, IPYS) and Transparency International. Among those are the allegations published in La Nación of Costa Rica which put two former presidents behind bars; the series of the magazine Semana of Colombia on the illegal interception of calls which led to the closure of the Intelligence Agency that was practicing it; the articles of the Folha de São Paulo reporters who discovered the illicit enrichment of a minister of the President of Brazil which resulted in the fall of part of the cabinet.

Having been a member of the IPYS jury for many years, what, in your opinion, is the merit of recognising excellence in investigative journalism?

Apart from recognising an effort and satisfaction for the ego, journalism awards are a kind of life insurance for investigative journalists. It is very common that based on these awards, media owners and editors provide more opportunities (meaning time and resources) to reporters to initiate new projects.

A report about illegal wire tapping by a Colombian government department was named the winner of the 2009 award. The winning series detailed the wire tapping of opposition politicians, magistrates and journalists without judicial permission by Colombia’s Administrative Department of Security. As a result of the investigation, the attorney general and the public prosecutor opened investigations and eventually closed down the department.

Have you observed changes in investigative journalism in general and in the submissions for the prize more specifically in the past few years?

Together with the other judges we agree that we have seen an increased use of databases in the past three to four years as well as a strong interest in unravelling the truth around unfortunate historical events such as massacres, forced disappearances and human rights violations.

About what topic or which country would you like to read a good journalistic investigation?

I think that investigative journalists in Latin America are very focused on official corruption and are very shy when it comes to denouncing private corruption. Financial fraud, price manipulation by large local monopolies, services and even the media themselves, the questionable manoeuvres of great magnates of the region or, to name a concrete topic, the uncontrolled expansion of mining, especially gold, in the hands of multinational companies, are issues that remain without much attention.

Awards ceremony image

A view of last year's Latin American Investigative Journalism Awards ceremony


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