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Latin America

Guatemala: Digital Media Magazine promotes justice and transparency

The digital magazine Plaza Pública uncovers corruption and reports on historical crimes in Guatemala. It has become a byword for innovation. Editor in Chief Alejandra Gutiérrez recently spoke at the republica conference.

Guetemala Journalistin Alejandra Gutiérrez Valdizán

Alejandra Gutiérrez has specialized on social themes, justice and violence. For almost 15 years, she’s worked for various in-depth journalism magazines in Guatemala, and in academic research.

Guatemala is seeing one of the biggest social movements in recent times in response to a high-level government corruption scandal that came to light in April 2015. Citizens are taking to the streets and calling for President Pérez Molina to resign, and Vice President Roxana Baldetti has already stepped down. Plaza Pública, the go-to website for investigative research and background stories in Guatemala and Latin America, is seeing a big increase in visitors and feedback.
At the beginning of May, Alejandra Gutiérrez was on visit in Germany, presenting Plaza Pública at one of the world' s biggest conferences about digital culture and innovation, re:publica, underlining that Plaza Pública has become an influential portal, a pioneer in combining investigative methods with digital technologies.

Reporting on corruption is one of the main focuses of Plaza Pública. What is your approach to the current scandal?
Alejandra Gutiérrez: Right now, we are seeing a social movement gaining momentum as never before. Citizens are openly demanding justice and reform. The atmosphere has heated up and people are angry and are pointing fingers at Pérez Molina and the other politicians involved. Good information is key. We try to inform people in real time about the issues at hand, especially via Twitter. But we also try to convey the structural challenges behind a particular case. It's not just about one or two politicians who are corrupt, but about the fact that our system allows for corruption to happen. That's where we provide background stories on the relationship between organized crime and political and economic power. We also want to create debate. For that, we have a commentary section used by bloggers and columnists.

Is corruption something covered by other media?
Actually, many of the media in Guatemala have been covering such cases in recent years, and corruption in general is a topic that's widely reported on. But some media are overly quick to draw conclusions or they spread misinformation. And the coverage rarely addresses structural weaknesses in the system or ties between economic and political powers - issues that are creating conflict in our society -for example, when big companies pay for political campaigns, or political favors are exchanged in the context of big projects in the mining industry. These are the issues we try to focus on. We want to inform, grow debate and shed light on topics that are in the shadows. You need a lot of passion for this kind of work, and patience too.

Deutschland republica Konferenz 2015 in Berlin

DW Akademie's panel at re:publica with Dickens Olewe, Alejandra Gutiérrez, Penhleak Chan, Guy Degen

Historical crimes are another main focus of Plaza Pública. Can you expand on this?
We focus on cases of transitional justice: In Guatemala, we had almost 36 years of war – and although it ended in 1996, many crimes are only now being addressed and the perpetrators brought to justice. What's being done to achieve accountability? We follow the trials and proceedings very closely. In Guatemala, like in other Latin American countries, the media have been reluctant to investigate crimes of the past, or haven't had the resources to do so. The country is still struggling to come to terms with its past. We use issues of transitional justice that are being dealt with today as bridges to the past. We do further research using the archives and find background information. We get in touch with witnesses, victims or the victims' families – and also with the people who were responsible for the crimes. The National Police Historical Archive (AHPN) is a great resource. This is how we bring historic accounts into the digital world. And many of the stories are being told for the first time.

Which digital technologies do you use at Plaza Pública?
Data journalism is vital to our work. We use statistics, maps and visualizations to support our stories and provide more detailed information on other levels – through numbers or historical data for example. At Plaza Pública, we have created some tools, but we don't try to invent everything new. There are already many tools and ideas on the internet - we try to be creative with what is out there. Of course, we embed videos and voice recordings, for example witness reports. Providing background information for the core story -that's what we do, and we use different digital formats for that.

How easy is it for you to conduct your work? How free are you as part of the media?
Plaza Pública was the first native-born online media voice, so we didn't have to make the transition from traditional to online media. That means the digital language is our “mother tongue." And our funding model is kind of unique. Plaza Pública was founded through a university initiative that wanted independent media. This private university (Universidad Rafael Landívar) supplies 65 percent of our funding and the rest comes from different organizations. This makes us more independent than other media and more sustainable in the long run. In fact, other countries are trying to replicate this funding model. Sustainability is a challenge for online media, so journalists are trying to form alliances with universities.
We are 15 staff members in total working at Plaza Pública, 8 of them journalists. In addition, we have five students who are given a full-range training program: We value journalism education and teach them about investigative methods and online journalism.

What's the biggest challenge faced by journalists in Guatemala?

We have an election coming up in September, and violence against journalists is on the rise. There is a climate of insecurity. Two journalists were murdered in March and threats against journalists have increased as well. All the more reason to keep going, keep learning and to make sure responsible information gets out to the public.


In November 2014, Gutiérrez took part in the "South2South Media Dialogue", an event organized by DW Akademie for digital innovators from the Global South. Along with transferring knowledge, the goal was to develop a set of guiding principles for using digital technologies to foster freedom of expression and information. And so the "South2South Manifesto" was born. At the 2015 re:publica conference, Gutiérrez and two other participants, presented their projects and talked about how digital technologies are strengthening freedom of expression in their home countries.

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