National Press Club

Latin America journalists tell how governments, cartels block their investigative stories

March 24, 2016 | By Kristin Szremski | kristin@ampalestine.org

Panel discusses obstacles to investigative reporting in Latin America at March 23 event. From left: Joyce Barnathan, president International Center for Journalists; Carmen Aristegui,  Aristeguinoticias.com; Suchit Chávez, La Prensa Grafica; Ana Carolina Alpirez, ojoc                                                                  ICFJ; Carmen Aristegui,  Aristeguinoticias.com; Suchit Chávez, La Prensa Grafica; Ana Carolina Alpireoconmipisto.com; and Luis Botello, ICFJ senior program director.

Panel discusses obstacles to investigative reporting in Latin America at March 23 event. From left: Joyce Barnathan, president International Center for Journalists; Carmen Aristegui, Aristeguinoticias.com; Suchit Chávez, La Prensa Grafica; Ana Carolina Alpirez, ojoc ICFJ; Carmen Aristegui, Aristeguinoticias.com; Suchit Chávez, La Prensa Grafica; Ana Carolina Alpireoconmipisto.com; and Luis Botello, ICFJ senior program director.

A mayor’s chauffer who was also a straw man for illicit arms deals . . . A corrupt government investigating itself . . . A military that also traffics in weapons with a drug cartel . . .

All great subjects for stories that could serve to hold officials accountable and inform a public struggling toward more democratic societies. But first they’d have to see the light of day.

And that’s the monumental problem facing three Latin American journalists who, at a March 23 event at the National Press Club, described the daunting task they face in finding outlets – even their own – that will air or publish their investigations.

Outlets hold back their stories because they fear intimidation by governments or drug cartel, the three journalists told a packed audience in an event sponsored by the Washington--based International Center for Journalists.

The journalists, who spoke through an interpreter, are from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala.

“This is a type of direct and indirect censorship,” said Carmen Aristegui, a national radio host in Mexico, who was fired from her long-standing job at MVS Communications after her report on the multi-million dollar presidential villa exposed the conflict of interest between Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the developer, who’d won millions in government contracts.

When she was unable to air her report on her own radio program, Aristegui reached out to international media, such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. It was that international pressure that “forced the Mexican government to do a farce of an investigation,” she said.

In the countries where officials can hide behind immunity laws and drug cartels, and where corrupt governments may intimidate and even kill outspoken critics, investigative journalists have a difficult time finding outlets that will publish their work, said Suchit Chávez, a reporter with El Salvador’s leading newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica. As a result, many important stories remain untold.

Now, however, there’s a cyber-secure platform where Latin American reporters can network, exchange ideas and promote cross-border publishing -- all in an effort to help impacted journalists circumvent censorship and intimidation in their own countries, said Luis Botello, ICFJ senior program director of special programs.

The Colombia-based platform, called Connectas, also provides training, mentorships and grants, which allow journalists to launch investigations that would not have been possible before.

Connectas works because “we were able to build up a level of trust,” Botello said. “Connectas makes it possible for this information, which in another day and age would not have come out, to come out.”

When asked by an audience member why they continue to investigate when the stakes are so high, Chavez stated the obvious: “We’re still journalists.”

“Democracy is not possible without a truly independent and critical press,” Aristegui said. “It is our task to engage. This is enough reason to keep moving forward.”

The International Center for Journalists has worked with more than 92,000 professional and citizen journalists for the past 32 years. Its flagship program is the Knight International Journalism Fellowship, which nurtures news innovation and experimentation worldwide, according to its website.

The event was held in coordination with the National Press Club’s International Correspondents Committee.