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JOURNALISM IN THE AMERICAS Blog

Latin American journalists play pivotal role in Paradise Papers transnational investigation



This story has been updated with a quote from Borja Echevarria from Univision.

As with the Panama Papers, Latin American journalists played pivotal roles in the management, reporting and editing of the global investigation known as the Paradise Papers, a reporting project led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that analyzes a trove of 13.4 million documents revealing details about the offshore activities of individuals and entities around the world.

Latin Americans served both in key roles at the ICIJ and as reporters for the media partners that participated. Of the network of more than 380 journalists from 67 countries around the globe that worked with ICIJ on the Paradise Papers investigation, 60 journalists from 13 Latin American countries were involved.

In all, twenty-one media outlets from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico and Venezuela participated in the investigations.

ICIJ Paradise Papers logo
 

Argentine journalist and ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker again led as project manager and Venezuelan Emilia Díaz-Struck served as research editor and regional coordinator for Latin America.

As Díaz-Struck tells it, when the ICIJ team told about this latest massive leak of millions of documents that would further expose the offshore financial system, they were interested, but cautious.

On April 3, 2016, they had started to reveal the fruits of a year-long investigation into the Panama Papers, 11.5 million records leaked from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. That was followed by a smaller investigation into 1.3 million files dubbed the Bahamas Leaks. And now, they were again being told by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that it had access to another massive leak of 13.4 million records.

“The question for us was, ‘Is this different from what we just did?’,” Díaz-Struck told the Knight Center. “So we spent some time researching because we would need to go to partners and say ‘okay, are you joining us again to explore millions of documents and offshores?’ So the question is, ‘what is different? Is this new? What kind of stories could come out of it?’”

After looking into the documents, the team found those new revelations.

Graphic by Lillian Michel/Knight Center

Names of multinational corporations –like Nike, Apple and Uber– were in these papers. The United States, which had been absent from the Panama Papers leaks, was also mentioned. And the journalists were getting a look into jurisdictions – including the Cayman Islands and Bermuda – that were not involved in the previous leak.

While they had connections with ICIJ’s previous work, these different trends revealed new stories.

“You say, ‘Wow it’s a lot,’ but then you need to decide, ‘do we jump in, do we make the effort and explore this?’ and when we say ‘yes, they’re a source of public interest and it’s different from what we have done before,’ it’s definitely worth it,” Díaz-Struck explained.

The Paradise Papers “show how deeply the offshore financial system is entangled with the overlapping worlds of political players, private wealth and corporate giants….and other global companies that avoid taxes through increasingly imaginative bookkeeping measures,” according to ICIJ. Though as ICIJ notes, the use of offshore companies and trusts and the appearance of individuals or entities in the Paradise Papers does not necessarily imply that laws were broken or that someone acted improperly.

Some of the Latin American journalists involved this time worked on the Panama Papers and have traditionally been part of the ICIJ network, and others were new. For example, this was the first beginning-to-end collaboration with ICIJ for Colombian national newspaper El Espectador, Costa Rican newspaper La Voz de Guanacaste and Argentine newspaper Perfil, Díaz-Struck explained.

When involving media partners in the investigation, ICIJ looked at which countries had the most representation in the data and would be needed to make sense of the complex situations. For this reason, eight journalists from Mexico participated and that will mean more stories coming from the country in the coming days, according to Díaz-Struck.

The Mexican journalists, from Proceso, Quinto Elemento Lab, Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción and Univision, also collaborated on investigations and publishing, a practice used by other media outlets in the region. They had meetings to discuss materials in the leaked files and to divide the labor according to reporters’ expertise.

“They were very well organized in terms of how they were going to collaborate among themselves to research the stories,” Díaz-Struck explained.

Outlets are also cross-publishing stories, as in the case of El Espectador and Connectas in Colombia. The seven Argentine journalists who worked on the Paradise Papers are distributing their stories on the platform “Argentina Papers” that they created for reports specific to their country.

Univision has created a page on its site showing Paradise Papers coverage in Latin American media. (Screenshot)

Univision is also sharing its own reporters’ work with other Latin American media outlets and has compiled coverage of the Paradise Papers in all Latin American media onto a page searchable by country. Additionally, Díaz-Struck said the U.S.-based Spanish-language network is helping to translate stories “so that all Latin American journalists could access them in Spanish.”

"Our goal was that Latin Americans who live in the United States and read Univision could end up consulting the information in the media outlets of the countries of origin where they had been reported. And at the same time, we gave them all the translations, videos, etc., that we made with ICIJ's themes so that they could publish them in their respective media outlets," Borja Echevarria, vice president and editor-in-chief of Univision Digital, told the Knight Center. "I believe that collaboration and generosity are key in these projects and a sample of where investigative journalism is going. "

Latin American journalists have also been communicating through a Whatsapp chat, “which has been very useful to boost communication between colleagues from different countries. It has been very valuable because they have all been attentive and supporting each other,” she explained.

Beyond communication, the nature of the leak presented new challenges for ICIJ and its partners.

Unlike the Panama Papers, which came just from the law firm Mossack Fonseca, the Paradise Papers leaks came from offshore law firm Appleby, Asiaciti Trust, and company registries in 19 secrecy jurisdictions. Additionally, documents were in different formats, some of which initially were unreadable or unsearchable.

“It’s really a titantic task to make sense of that,” Díaz-Struck remarked.

To make sense of these documents and put them at the disposal of the hundreds of journalists working on the investigations, ICIJ used familiar tools they adapted to the needs of this project.

They used three different platforms: a Knowledge Center for uploading and searching the documents, another (Linkurious) for connecting the dots between entities and officers and the last (Global I-Hub) for communication between journalists.

The platforms were adapted so that users could distinguish between sources of information and could make links with previous stories the consortium had worked on.

Journalists from Ibero-America were also on the data team responsible for helping to wrangle all this information. Spanish journalist Mar Cabra served as data editor, while Costa Rican Rigoberto Carvajal, Miguel Fiandor Gutiérrez of Spain and Manuel Villa of Mexico also formed part of the data and research team. Villa is ICIJ’s first Neo4j Connected Data Fellow who was brought on after the Panama Papers investigation to help make sense of and find stories in big data.

To make sure all these data and communications are safe, ICIJ counts on a security expert and encrypts all platforms and communications. And to ensure the secrecy of all investigations until publication, all media partners and journalists must agree to the first of two key promises: keep the project among the people who are doing the work. The second key thing is what Díaz-Struck refers to as “radical sharing,” letting others know about what you find.

Like many media outlets, site Ojo Público has created a microsite for all coverage of the Paradise Papers. (Screenshot)

“We are a team that crosses borders,” the research editor said.

As transnational collaborations grow, according to Díaz-Struck, so has maturity in terms of sharing information to expose bigger, more global connections.

“I think that the Panama Papers was a key point for collaboration and people viewed the impact it had, the importance of the stories and how actually it made a difference even for all the media partners,” explained Díaz-Struck, who also co-founded Venezuelan digital site Armando.info. “They spent a lot, they invested a lot of time, but then the importance of their stories, the quality of their stories was so high and the impact was relevant that I think that was reflected in the media environment. You see more collaborations these days.”

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All publications listed below are ICIJ media partners in the Paradise Papers investigation. The transnational investigation has been given prominence on the digital site’s of most outlets. Click the publication’s name to view its coverage.

Argentina: America TV-A24; La Nación; Perfil; SoloLocal.Info

Brazil: Poder360

Chile: CIPER

Colombia: Connectas; El Espectador

Costa Rica: DataBaseAR (Grupo AR); La Voz de Guanacaste

Ecuador: El Universo

El Salvador: El Faro

Guatemala: Plaza Pública

Mexico: Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción; Proceso; Quinto Elemento Lab

Paraguay: ABC Color

Peru: Convoca; Ojo Público

Puerto Rico: Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

Venezuela: Armando.info

 

Ed. note: Rosental Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, is on the advisory board for ICIJ.



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