The malpractice of government institutions in Latin America often takes form as misuse of public funds, conflicts of interest and corruption, state-backed violence, electoral fraud and media censorship among other transgressions. Though in the global context, each of these wrongs are often products of an authoritarian or otherwise undemocratic government. In Latin America however, the censorship of the press through questionable or simply illegal means is frequently an unfortunate reality for even the region’s democracies. This censorship ranges from the collusion of concentrated media outlets and government actors, to the perpetration of violence against journalists. Today though, the independent and start-up style journalism is changing the story of Latin American news media.
“DURING Nicaragua’s current unrest, the president, Daniel Ortega, tried a tactic that had worked before. In León, a stronghold of government support, thugs loyal to his Sandinista regime tried to put university students onto buses heading for Managua, the capital, to use them to help suppress protests there. The students refused. They had seen videos of police beating demonstrators and wanted no part of it. Their resistance, reported on independent news websites, inspired more protests.
After Mr Ortega was elected in 2006 he sold half of the state broadcasting channels, put his children in charge of the other half and let his wife (who is also his vice-president) drone on for 20 minutes a day on national television. But a proliferation of social-media pages are covering the protests, while more established outlets, like 100% Noticias, a TV news channel, have stopped censoring themselves. “People are no longer interested in news provided by the regime,” says Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the owner of Confidencial, an independent newspaper.
In many Latin American countries the traditional media have done a reasonable job of holding governments to account. Newspapers in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Guatemala have probed corruption and helped to bring down presidents or ministers. In Colombia Semana, a news magazine, has a long tradition of denouncing abuses by the security forces. Many newspaper and radio journalists, especially in far-flung provinces, have been murdered because of their work, often by drug-traffickers or other local potentates.
But Latin American media markets tend to be small and dominated by tycoons with other businesses, who prize cosy relationships with governments. They are being shaken up by digital media. Without the need to buy or rent printing presses, digital publishers can start with “sweat equity alone”, says Janine Warner of SembraMedia, an NGO that helps Latin American journalists become entrepreneurs. Its directory lists more than 770 sites in 19 countries that “serve the public interest” and do not rely on a single corporation or party for revenue.
In dictatorships they are the only independent media voices. Venezuela’s Efecto Cocuyo (Firefly Effect) reports facts that the regime tries to hide, including murder counts and the black-market exchange rate (see article). In Cuba start-ups like El Estornudo (the Sneeze) and Periodismo de Barrio (Neighbourhood News), though cautious about challenging the legitimacy of the regime, are reporting critically about the state of the country.
In freer places, upstarts are challenging oligopoly as much as officialdom. According to a report by UNESCO, in most of Latin America one firm controls around half the market in each category of media. In Chile two newspaper companies, El Mercurio and Copesa, have more than 90% of readers. In Colombia three conglomerates have almost 60% of the print, radio and internet audience. In Mexico the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, whose term ends in December, has kept newspapers and television stations quiet by buying lots of advertising. Concentration and bias provoke mistrust. Just a quarter of Latin Americans think that the media are independent of powerful interests, according to polls by Latinobarómetro.
The new breed of journalists has produced some impressive scoops. Reporters at Aristegui Noticias, a website, uncovered some of the biggest scandals of Mr Peña’s government, including the purchase of a mansion by his wife with help from a government contractor. In April 2015 the site reported that federal police had killed 16 civilians earlier that year in Apatzingán, a city in central Mexico. El Universal, a big newspaper, had reportedly declined to publish the story.
Chequeado, Latin America’s first fact-checking site, embarrasses both the left and the right. It has reported that the election campaign of Mauricio Macri, now Argentina’s centre-right president, got contributions from firms that had won government contracts in Buenos Aires while he was mayor. It has also revealed that construction firms at the centre of Brazil’s Lava Jatocorruption investigation had won at least $9.6bn worth of overvalued contracts in Argentina during the earlier left-wing governments of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her husband, Néstor Kirchner. In 2015 Chequeado was the first media outlet in Latin America to fact-check a presidential-election debate while it was happening. “Our goal is to raise the cost of a lie,” says its founder, Laura Zommer.
In Brazil most of the revelations from Lava Jato have been given to mainstream newspapers by prosecutors. New media focus on neglected subjects. Jota dissects the judiciary; Nexo specialises in explanatory journalism with lots of graphics and timelines. Agência Pública, which concentrates on human rights, has revealed abuse of young black men in favelas by police and a secret deal between the government and mining companies to hold down compensation to the families of 17 people who died after a dam collapsed in 2015.
The upstarts are bringing about change. When Animal Político, a website, accused the former governor of Veracruz of diverting millions of dollars to phantom companies, he fled from Mexico. After a six-month manhunt across at least three continents, he was captured in Guatemala and faces trial. The digital publications also had a hand in a big reform in Argentina. It was largely thanks to their efforts that a bill to decriminalise abortion was passed last month by the lower house.
Scoops have brought accolades, including a share in a Pulitzer prize for Aristegui Noticias and Colombia’s Connectas for their role in reporting on the Panama papers, which revealed tax evasion by powerful people across the globe. They have also brought reprisals. Of the 14 journalists murdered in Mexico last year, almost all worked for independent outlets. Nearly half of 100 publishers surveyed by SembraMedia said members of their staff had suffered threats or blackmail, and more than half had lost advertising.
More dash than cash
The upstarts are financially vulnerable, however. Just over a quarter of the sites surveyed by SembraMedia had revenues of more than $100,000 in 2016 and half lost money. Idealistic about journalism, many websites ignore the bottom line. Few of them track how many readers they have or collect demographic information that would help them get advertising.
The most successful try to reconcile their idealism with the need to pay the bills. Some supplement revenue from advertising with other income, such as grants. Chequeado, which has more than tripled its budget since 2013 to $770,000, is choosy about advertisers but takes money from foreign NGOs and governments. La Silla Vacía, Colombia’s third-most-influential news source, according to a recent survey, receives 57% of its revenue from grants and 28% from advertising and sponsorships. The rest comes from crowd-funding and a platform on which academics can publish scholarly papers. Journalists at El Faro in El Salvador, which was founded 20 years ago, recently started using tools like Google Analytics to understand and expand their audience. In December Natalia Viana, who founded Agência Pública seven years ago with a group of other women, gathered her staff to write the outlet’s first strategic plan.
As the upstarts mature, the old media are becoming more like them. Part of Chequeado’s revenue comes from offering training courses in fact-checking to newsrooms across Latin America. Three fact-checking sites have started up in Brazil over the past two years, including Truco, which is part of Agência Pública. Their work has in turn prompted giants like Globo and Estado de São Paulo, a newspaper, to create fact-checking teams.
Old and new media are collaborating, too. Joint investigations and syndication deals have become common. Journalists shuttle between the two. Agência Pública, which co-publishes all its stories with other media groups, gets a dozen reprints on average on blogs and newspapers like Folha de S. Paulo and the Guardian. Such cross-fertilisation is improving Latin American journalism overall, even in Nicaragua. The gusto shown by independent sites forced establishment outlets to “start doing journalism or risk losing viewers”, says Mr Chamorro. The upstarts may be small, but their impact is sizeable.
Correction (July 13th, 2018): A previous version of this article stated that Agência Pública devised a business plan for the first time last year. In fact, it was their first strategic plan looking at the coming four years. Sorry. “
This article originally appeared in The Economist