An Investigative Reporting Manifesto

ICIJ member Carlos Dada, the news director of Central American publication El Faro, is 2012’s recipient of the Anna Politkovskaya Award honoring courageous investigative reporting. Dada and his colleagues operate under constant and very real threats in one of the most hazardous regions of the world for independent journalists.

Here is an English translation of Dada’s acceptance speech delivered at the Internazionale a Ferrara Festival of journalism and current affairs on October 5. Read the original Spanish version here.

Dada and El Faro were also awarded the 2012 WOLA Human Rights Award last month; you can enjoy his acceptance speech on video further below.

Carlos Dada (right) receives the 2012 Anna Politkovskaya Award. Photo: Francesco Alesi, courtesy of Internazionale.  

This award is named after a journalist who has become a symbol of courage, commitment and resistance to the powerful groups that threaten to silence journalists whose work they find uncomfortable.

The threat is an ancient practice, but in the case of journalism, it continues in more countries than we realize. And the number of murdered journalists is also increasing. The region of the world in which I live, which includes Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela, is a major area of threats against the press and freedom of expression.

The Russia that killed Anna Politkovskaya has increasingly common elements to Central America, including high levels of impunity and the power of criminal groups that have penetrated all institutions.

In our case, criminal organizations and drug cartels, arms traffickers and money launderers operate throughout the Central American corridor transporting drugs to the United States, having paid off purchasing officers, judges, prosecutors, military, government officials, mayors and deputies. These criminal groups represent the main threat today to our nascent democracy, peace and justice.

In her final column, titled “What Am I Guilty Of?” Politkovskaya spoke of practicing journalism under these conditions, in which the independent journalists, who hold the principles which are the reasons that brought us to this work in the first place, are the minority in an army of journalists who are complacent with and aligned to the interests of the powerful.

The “koverny,” she called them: Russian clowns whose job was to entertain the audience while the stage was changed.

Politkovskaya was silenced because she would not be a “koverny.” Because she decided to use the power of the media to report the victimization of Chechen communities. A victimization whose perpetrators have names and surnames; officers and officials guilty of disappearances, abuse of power and corruption in the Russia of Vladimir Putin.

In the days that ended up being the last of her life, Anna Politkovskaya increasingly wondered whether journalism was worth losing one’s life for. And it is a very relevant question which will have been posed, in extreme situations, by several of the guests at this festival.

Neither I nor the journalists of El Faro are in the situation that Anna Politkovskaya was in. Nor do we want to be. We don’t wonder whether it is worth dying for journalism. We believe that it is worth living to do it. Taking risks, and being aware that the situation for our colleagues in other regions is much more pressing.

We agree, yes, on the principles that motivated her to write these stories. Why and for whom do you work? Anna Politkovskaya had a clear answer: for the people, and for their welfare.

We maintain this romantic idea that we can change the world with our work, that the publication of these stories will prevent more deaths, more abuses, and be an effective way to combat impunity.

I do not know if our work is effective, but is the only method we have.

In critical countries or regions, and weak states, journalism also becomes a form of activism. It is not only to inform, but to transform. To provoke awareness and constantly remind people their right to dignity and a better quality of life. And their moral obligation to engage in public debate and demand more of their authorities.

In this, unfortunately, we have not been very successful.

In Mexico and Central America, we live in unequal societies with citizens who are afraid, because the government can not guarantee their rights. We live in corrupt states with high levels of impunity and low levels of idealism and hope for a better future.

Recent history has shown us that corruption, authoritarianism and abuse have no ideologies. They may be exercised by all political persuasions. And that, regardless of which group is in power, the journalism field is composed mostly of “kovernys.”

I work in a newsroom composed of very young journalists, and even they are already frustrated. We denounce the corrupt, the criminal and the drug-traffickers without getting any response from the government and a very mild response from civil society.

Frustration leads to another crucial question: Is our work really helping to achieve a better quality of life for citizens? Or are we simply narrating the fall of a society? Actually they are not mutually exclusive questions. The narratives of the darkest parts of our communities are also complaints when told honestly.

Save perhaps for some degree of arrogance, there is a belief that in historical terms we are contributing to building a more comprehensive narrative about our reality. Helping by providing information which raises questions whose answers intend to obtain historical lessons.

In the immediate level it is more a matter of faith. We like to think so: that our work contributes to fewer victims, that it combats impunity, and makes the perpetrators pay. That it stops suffering.

It is a question also of hope. We want to believe that every effort counts, that drop after drop the water ends up eroding the stone.

Today I receive, on behalf of El Faro, the Anna Politkovskaya Award, with pride, yes, but also with the thought that this recognition should serve as a platform to direct our gaze towards other colleagues in the region who are experiencing truly alarming situations.

Today 75 percent of the journalists killed do not die in war zones as we traditionally expect. Not by bombs or by crossfire. Journalists in our region are killed deliberately, to silence them.

Today the most dangerous countries in the world to practice journalism in are Mexico and Honduras.

Recently, an organization sent a questionnaire to Mexican journalists asking what they would ask international organizations for to support their work. Several respondents said they wanted a gun. One explained: "I want the gun so they don’t catch me alive."

They, our brave colleagues in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, who are considering every day the same questions of Anna Politkovskaya. It is they who now demand our attention. All who, despite the extreme conditions in which they work, resist by all means possible becoming “kovernys.”

This was an English translation of Dada’s acceptance speech delivered at the Internazionale a Ferrara Festival. Read the original Spanish version here.

Watch Carlos Dada accept the 2012 WOLA Human Rights Award on behalf of El Faro in September:

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