Journalism in the Americas

November 19, 2019

By Silvia Higuera. Original publication on the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas
Lea en Español / Leia em Português

Red PALTA is born to monitor the use of public money and public policies in Latin America

In addition to being an essential product of every family’s shopping basket for the vast majority of the Latin America population, milk also is part of many social assistance programs aimed at the most vulnerable populations in countries such as Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala and Peru.

However, the hiring of the people in charge of bringing it to these populations, as well as the delivery process itself, has irregularities, conflicts of interest and even corruption cases, as the first series of investigations published by the newly formed Latin American collaborative journalism initiative called Red PALTA has reported.

Red PALTA meets in Lima, Peru for the first time as a group. (Courtesy).

The Latin American Network of Journalists for Transparency and Anti-Corruption (PALTA, for its acronym in Spanish) aims to be a “cross-border collaborative and investigative space” whose members “monitor the uses of public money, identify patterns of bad practices in governments and use technology to analyze massive data and reveal cases of national and international corruption,” according to its site.

A mixture of newspapers, digital sites and non-governmental organizations make up Red PALTA. They include La Nación of Argentina, la diaria of Uruguay, El Faro of El Salvador, Ojo Público of Peru, Ojo con mi pisto of Guatemala, Datasketch of Colombia and the NGO Poder of Mexico.

Although the network was officially formed with this first investigation, these media outlets and organizations were already functioning as an “informal network” through other collaborative projects. However, they shared an interest in institutionalizing this work, as Nelly Luna, general editor of Ojo Público and member of the network, told the Knight Center.

“What the network is precisely trying to do in the coming months is to define a bit how these media outlets and organizations that we are part of advance this institutionalization of cross-border investigation in Latin America from a profile, that I think is different, which has to do with how we use technology to track and investigate public money […] and whether there are regional patterns of bad practices, corruption or public policy approaches that may be affecting citizen rights,” Luna said.

Most of the members are part of the first generations of the Latin American Alliance for Civic Technology (Altec) and through constant meetings they were noting similarities in their interests and challenges, and also generating a mutual trust, Lucía Pardo, product manager of la diaria and member of the network, told the Knight Center.

“[The Network was born with] an intention to bring light to everything that has to do with the different processes and management of public money, and [to] make a connection for the reader about the use of these processes and public policy, with a human rights perspective,” Pardo said.

With this clear objective, the team contacted representatives of Open Contracting Partnership (OCP) and Hivos – two organizations close to those who are part of the Red PALTA, according to Pardo. Hivos and OCP gave financial support so that representatives of the seven media outlets and organizations could meet in Lima, Peru last March.

Red PALTA logo (Screenshot).

It was in Lima that the idea of “La leche prometida” (The promised milk) was born, the first series of investigations that follows the trail of “state contracting of dairy products in Latin America,” according to its page. Hivos and OCP delivered 50 percent of the resources that were needed to carry out the investigations; the rest was provided by each media outlet.

“One of the things that highlights this first investigation is that corruption or bad management practices, or the conflict of interest among politicians does directly affect the citizen, and the most vulnerable citizen,” Luna said. “What it shows us is that corruption and bad institutional practices are violating some fundamental rights of the poorest populations, such as the right to a fair and equitable diet.”

In El Salvador, for example, the investigation showed that milk, destined for public schools, was not reaching all institutions. And in the case of the schools that did receive the milk, it was in powder form, without considering that many of these institutions do not have access to drinking water, according to the report.

In Peru and Guatemala, the investigation showed conflicts of interest and million dollar contracts in the supply of this product. While in the case of Uruguay, the issue had a more economic perspective. For example, the report said that the State has failed to grant subsidies to family farming enterprises, although the law allows it.

As usually happens in collaborative journalism, the network had editorial and technical coordinators chosen among members of each media outlet. According to Pardo, this role may vary according to the topic to be investigated as well as the strengths of each media outlet.

“Also because everyone has different profiles,” Luna added. “There are media outlets that have a very strong weight in the investigative and narrative journalistic part, other organizations have a much stronger technological component that sustains the infrastructure of what the network could become in the future. And part of that definition of functions is also to recognize what are these differential profiles of each of the organizations so as not to duplicate efforts and rather to further enhance the characteristics of each one.”

Although for this first series each media outlet presented an individual investigation, during the months of reporting, each of the members of PALTA fed a database that would eventually allow them to discover patterns in the region.

“To see if there is a pattern of purchases, a pattern or a scheme of bad practices in the process, or in the affectation of final rights to people,” said Luna, who added that in this first series they could not find many patterns because, among other reasons, “there is a serious problem regarding data collection” in Latin America.

“There is not a single national entity in every country that would systematize, for example, all public contracts. Some countries have it, others do not. Others have it at the federal or municipal level. And additionally this systematization of data that governments have are not always values that can be trusted,” Luna added.

“The possibility of finding common points to continue pursuing is certainly a challenge,” said Pardo. For that reason, in the next investigations they will work to find these common points or patterns that permit the works to show a Latin American overview, and not exclusively a view focused on each country.

Notwithstanding that challenge, the evaluation of this first experience and the delivery of investigations has been positive.

 Team member of Red PALTA (Courtesy).

“The main impact regarding the milk is that it does put a topic into debate that is very difficult to bring out, to put it on the agenda in a context of high politicization with the cases of corruption that Latin America is experiencing,” Luna said. “[This investigation] turns our eyes to these other issues that reveal micro-corruption or other less sophisticated corruption, such as that of Odebrecht, for example, but that journalism has to see again because they sometimes have a much more direct impact, even on the daily lives of people who depend on them directly.”

In addition to the importance of bringing these issues to the debate, Red PALTA would also like its investigations to be able to serve as a point of information for a possible change in public policies.

“To understand what the role of journalism is when it comes to being able to provide this information,” Pardo said. “That may be, why not, a further input for both civil society organizations, and for different actors who want to influence public policies that could count on these investigations as part of the tools to promote these changes.”

Although they cannot give much information about the next installment they are already working on, the network will remain firm in its objective of monitoring public money and “how corruption, bad practices, lack of institutionality or sometimes inefficiency end up affecting fundamental human rights,” as Luna explained.