Chilean Chronicles, Part 59: Looking into Transparency in Chile

Our time in Chile has already been filled with extraordinary experiences, and we’re not even at the halfway mark.

We´ve spent a magical day at the home of Alejandra Matus and her family.

We´ve been witness to what amounted to a smidgen of the available activities through the build up to, and commemoration of, the 40th anniversary of the Pinochet coup.

We´ve atended a bunch of fondas, eating anticuchos and drinking terremotos, during the weeklong celebration of Fiestas Patrias.

I´ve also had the great pleasure of teaching and learning from my Data Journalism students at the University of Diego Portales.  They´ve finished their first of three projects.  Their work and grasp of the concepts impressed me, while the work they´ve produced has made me feel proud.

Beyond that, we’ve all kinds of red wine, empanadas, pisco sours and cazuelas.

Of course, I’m not just here to teach a class, meet incredibly generous and interesting people, improve my Spanish and eat delicious food.

I´m also doing research into the impact the 2009 Transparency Law has had on investigative journalism in the country.

Passed during the administration of former President and current leading presidential candidate Michelle Bachelet, the law was hailed as a landmark piece of legislation that would move the former dictatorship state in a far more open direction.

Exactly how far it’s gone is what I intend to find out during the next three months.

The structure is in place, according to open government guru Moises Sanchez.

We met over Skype in 2008, the first year I applied for the Fulbright in Chile, and in person over coffee about a month agao.

Moises said that Chile and Mexico have the strongest laws and best supporting infrastructure in Latin America.

He ought to know.

His “region” is the entire continent, and he spends much of his time traveling from country to country monitoring the state of public access to information.

That’s helpful background information, and I will say that I my original research plan was to emulate the noteworthy example set by James Painter, a BBC journalist turned Oxford academic who did a fascinating content analysis of climate change denial.

My adaptation would be to look at a year´s worth of coverage by El Mercurio, the nation´s largest paper, before the law changed, and a year´s worth of coverage after its passage to evaluate what, if any, impact it had had.

There were one small, all right, major, problem with this idea.

El Mercurio doesn´t really do investigative reporting.

At all.

Beyond that, as I later learned from watching Patricio Lanfranco and Elizabeth Farnsworth´s outstanding documentary, El Diario de Agustín, the paper was not only complicit with the Pinochet regime, it was actually funded by the United States government and worked hand-in-hand with the dictatorship in its fight against what the paper´s leaders perceived as the Communist menace.

Learning that caused me to scrap my original approach.

Digging deeper, I’ve found that investigative reporting is in very scarce supply here in Chile.

This is with the major exception of CIPER, an investigative non-profit outfit headed by the indefatigable Monica Gonzalez.

Time and again CIPER, which has a small staff, has brought official misconduct to light.

One of their most recent exclusives broke the news about the comprehensive failure of the 2012 Census.

Their investigation and follow up coverage sparked a chain of events which culminated in the Census being declared invalid and needing to be redone in 2015.

CIPER has also participated in hard-hitting international collaborations with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists about key issues like the offshore bank accounts of elites in countries around the world.

I’m excited to meet the dedicated folks at CIPER, and have come to understand that beyond them, the list of investigative reporters is a very short one.

We met Waldo Carrasco, the head of libraries for the Providencia community where we live, at one of the events leading up to the September 11 anniversary.

He was working in public information at the time the law was passed.

“We had an expectation that there would be an avalanche of request, especially from the press,” he told me.  “It didn’t happen.”

I’ve also heard from some very high-level journalists that the Transparency Council is slow, picky and unresponsive.

The combined effect of this information has been that I´ve readjusted my approach froma primarily quantitative one  to a more qualitative method.

This means that rather than mostly crunching data, I’ll be talking with people.

A lot of them.

I’m shooting to talk with a range of media executives and reporters at major publications and news outlets to get their take on what the impact of the law has been.

I’m going to talk with lawyers who helped shaped the legislation to understand their sense of what the legislation has and has not done.

I plan to download and analyze data from the Transparency portal to assess how many and which people have been asking for public information as well as what the results of those requests have been.

But I also intend to connect with people in smaller outlet like Miguel Paz, whose Poderopedia, a site that details relationships between Chile’s elite, has already been exported to several other Latin American countries.

I’m also going to reach out to people in the burgeoning coding community who are using their coding skills to access and built applications that both have a greater volume and flow of data than their non-coding counterparts.

My goal is to be able to say something specific about the degree to which the promise of a more open society has been met by the reporters who have asked for information and the government which has it.

I also want to be able to paint some kind of picture of how other forces like technology and globalization are acting on the nation that University of Vina del Mar Sociology Chairman Luis “Tito” Tricot memorably called a small nation in the southern part of the world with a view of the sea.

I don’t know exactly what I’ll learn.

But I do know both that I’ll have fun along the way and that our remarkable set of experiences is only going to get richer.

Especially if red wine and pisco sour are involved.

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