LATIN AMERICA: Investigative Journalists Show Their Mettle

  • by Ángel Páez (lima)
  • Inter Press Service

Reyes was one of the judges for the Prize for the Best Journalistic Investigation of a Case of Corruption in Latin America, awarded by the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute of Peru, IPYS) and the Berlin-based Transparency International (TI).

'After selecting the winners and reading over a hundred entries, we can say without any hesitation that investigative journalism in the region is alive and well,' Reyes told IPS.

An example of its vitality is the work done by reporters Ernesto Rivera and Giannina Segnini, of the Costa Rican newspaper La Nación, and Daniela Arbex, Táscia Souza and Ricardo Miranda of the daily Tribuna de Minas, in the city of Juiz de Fora in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, who shared the first prize.

Rivera and Segnini unearthed illegal financial dealings with potentially dirty money, carried out by officials of the Catholic Church in Costa Rica.

'It never crossed our minds that Church authorities could be involved in illegal financial operations with dirty money, until we saw the cheques and accounts involving millions of dollars,' Segnini told IPS.

'We have investigated corruption in government circles and also in the private sphere, but no one wakes up one morning thinking: let's investigate the Church today. What was most surprising was the involvement of the top authorities of the Costa Rican Bishops' Conference,' she said.

Segnini said that 'at first, the president of the Bishops' Conference, Monsignor Francisco Ulloa, said he was not aware of the illegal financial dealings, but after La Nación published the stories, the General Superintendence of Financial Entities (SUGEF, a regulatory authority) brought a complaint and the prosecutor's office raided its premises looking for evidence of wrong-doing.

'We realised the impact of what we had discovered when, without warning, all the members of the Bishops' Conference, led by its president, turned up at the La Nación editorial offices to offer explanations,' Segnini said.

The Costa Rican journalists' investigation was triggered by a complaint by Swiss-Italian businesswoman Ana Moscarelli, who ultimately was shown to have participated in the illegal dealings and to have a record in Switzerland for managing the accounts of corrupt politicians and of persons linked to the Mafia.

Brazilian journalists Arbex, Souza and Miranda, for their part, investigated the president of the city council in Juiz de Fora, Vicente de Paula Olivera, popularly known as Vicentão, who awarded 11 contracts to a front company that really belonged to him.

When this was reported in Tribuna de Minas, and he lost the elections in which he was standing for a sixth consecutive term as the candidate of the centre-right Brazilian Labour Party (PTB), Vicentão resigned. A judicial investigation for alleged corruption was subsequently opened against him.

Arbex said Vicentão had appointed an executive in the Koji construction company that he covertly owned, to be his right-hand person in the public tenders and contracts office.

'We were up against a carefully constructed corruption scam,' said Arbex at the presentation of her team's work. 'When we interviewed Vicentão, we were taken aback when he claimed: 'Honestly, I am not the owner of Koji.' But now he is facing justice for his lies,' she said.

The winners of this year's competition presented their work at the Aug. 15-18 Latin American Conference on Investigative Journalism organised by IPYS and TI in Lima.

The conference included the award ceremony, as well as classes by experts like Reyes, who recently published 'Nuestro hombre en la DEA' ('Our Man at the DEA' - U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration), the untold story of photographer Baruch Vega, who helped United States authorities capture Colombian drug traffickers.

Ricardo Uceda, executive director of IPYS, told IPS that 189 investigative pieces from 19 countries were submitted, indicating that investigative journalism in this region has been growing in strength, in spite of all the talk about the print media facing a crisis.

'The judges selected for recognition stories revealing corruption in spheres unrelated to the state,' Uceda said.

'The final selection and special mentions included journalistic pieces that revealed corruption in non-governmental organisations, the media and trade unions, as well as organised crime activities, to mention a few cases,' he said.

Second prize went to Santiago Fascetto, of the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa, for his work reporting irregular payments received by former president Martín Torrijos in connection with a secret contract with a high government official in the Dominican Republic.

Salvadoran reporter Jorge Antonio Ávalos, with El Diario de Hoy, won third prize for articles exposing false accusations of environmental damage made against a battery recycling factory.

The Tribuna de Minas stands out for being a provincial newspaper, proving that it is not necessary to work in a large city or have lots of resources in order to undertake investigative journalism.

'It was an exceptional case of homegrown investigative journalism, sustained by sheer persistence, uncovering fact after fact without the aid of information leaked from the police, the prosecutor's office or third parties. In a climate of hostility and obstructionism, the reporters examined each fact without fear or favour, hit the nail on the head, and brought down a powerful local politician,' said Uceda.

'It's a model. It was awarded the prize, not because of its impact - it had little or none at the national level - nor because of the star careers of the journalists, but due to its methods and results,' he said.

At the Lima conference, Reyes shared his experiences on how to track dirty money. He said laws on money laundering are quite lenient and the banks are let off too lightly.

'The U.S. government does not seem to be very keen on fighting money laundering,' he told IPS. An indication of this is that 'it only invests 120 million dollars in combating this crime.'

The author of 'Our Man at the DEA' said one of the greatest challenges faced by investigative journalists is the close relationship between the banking system and money laundering, because whenever a case is detected, the banks tend to get off scot-free.

'The banks have come to the conclusion that money laundering is good business, and that the risk is worth running,' he said.

'They conclude this because in the end it is middle-ranking officials, or the poor employees who open the accounts, who are punished. And the penalties are not severe and do not have serious consequences. After paying the fines, the bank carries on as if nothing has happened. Its reputation remains intact,' he said.

When an investigative journalist exposes banks implicated in money laundering, it will certainly be front page news.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service