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From left to right: Giannina Segnini from Costa Rica, María Teresa Ronderos from Colombia, and Marina Walker-Guevara from Argentina. Illustration: Dante Aguilera for GIJN



The Power of Collaboration: El CLIP and the Plan to Transform Latin America’s Investigative Ecosystem

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The seeds of a plan to radically change how investigative journalists collaborate in Latin America were sown in Prague in 2015, when three friends reunited and rekindled a longtime dream.

The backdrop was an intensive workshop bringing together journalists under the common threat of authoritarian regimes; the friends were María Teresa Ronderos, from Colombia, Marina Walker-Guevara, from Argentina, and Giannina Segnini, from Costa Rica — a trio made up of some of Latin America’s most respected journalists.

They shared the conviction, built over many years, that many stories in their region had the potential to be cross-border and much more collaborative, mirroring the transnational investigations and challenges journalists face.

“[The workshop] generated that environment, the thought that we have to face what is coming,” Ronderos recalls. “The three of us at that time were working for organizations in the US or Europe, and we dreamed of being able to do what we were passionate about from Latin America. And then we said: ‘Well, let’s create our own center, for cross-border journalism in Latin America.’”

They made a pact that night in Prague, that one of them would some day carry the torch and lead the project to fruition. Four years later, with Ronderos as its director, and Segnini and Walker-Guevara on its board, the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism — or CLIP, for the acronym in Spanish — was born.

“It was very clear to me that there was a vacuum in Latin America. The cross-border investigations that existed were in the traditional style, with correspondents and stringers. We wanted collaboration between organizations: that’s how they can become stronger. What we wanted was to help strengthen the investigative journalism ecosystem,” Ronderos says.

Hit the Ground Running

CLIP’s was the opposite of a soft launch.

Having just been officially created in June 2019, and with a team of just four people, CLIP plunged into two ongoing transnational collaborations in need of coordination, technical and editorial support, and in one case, a spokesperson to head a story too dangerous for bylines. The investigations involved multiple partners throughout the continent, complicated by security risks and complex challenges. By September, both stories were out, published in multiple outlets. The organization became a GIJN member two years later.

Faith Transnationals, one of CLIP’s first investigative stories,  revealed the spread of religious fundamentalism across Latin America. Image: Courtesy of CLIP

One of those first two stories, Faith Transnationals, required coordinating 16 media outlets across 13 countries, unveiling the spread of religious fundamentalism across the region. The other, The Miroslava Project, sought to bring to light years of reporting by journalists in Mexico about the murder of their colleague, investigative reporter Miroslava Breach.

The first project demonstrated CLIP’s ability to centralize and edit, its capacity to join multiple threads to weave together an overall narrative.

“They have been very important and successful in convening media and journalists for projects with a regional perspective, based on the local expertise of the participants,” says Carlos Dada, the founder and director of El Faro, the Salvadoran digital news outlet that took part in the Faith Transnationals project. “They are very good at the broader editorial outlook, at giving journalistic sense to the projects, and also the most complicated thing among Latin Americans: the coordination of the participants.”

The second project showed the wide range of its capabilities. CLIP’s participation created a safe space for anonymous publication in the face of retaliation, adding international partners to complete the stories. The Netherlands-based investigative journalism group Bellingcat was brought in to help with open source and satellite imagery analysis to offset the threats of reporting on site; Paris-based Forbidden Stories, whose mission is “to continue and publish the work of other journalists facing threats, prison, or murder,” helped ensure the story reached an international audience.

The Miroslava Project documented years of reporting by journalists in Mexico about the murder of investigative reporter Miroslava Breach. Image: Courtesy of CLIP

“CLIP’s work was to analyze data, a lot of editing, and to support and tighten security because people were very anxious. We provided an outside view of how it could be stronger. The cake was made and we put the icing on it so it could go public,” Ronderos explains.

For Jennifer Ávila, the director of the Honduran investigative website ContraCorriente, a frequent partner of CLIP, the organization has made good on its promise to upend traditional collaboration.

“Collaborations are not easy, some fail because there are no clear rules, because there is selfishness,” Ávila says. “We continue to collaborate with CLIP because there is seriousness, a commitment, a process, and a genuine interest in protecting us. I believe they truly respect the audiences and mission of each media outlet. They have great empathy, listen to their partners, and that makes all the difference.”

CLIP’s fast start was both a proof of concept and a statement of intent. Since then, they have gone on to produce articles in collaboration with nearly a hundred media partners in Latin America alone, in addition to many more allies in Europe, the United States, Asia, and Africa.

Other notable stories in recent years include:

  • Money and Faith Havens, which investigated how, under the cover of norms protecting religious freedoms, some churches and leaders have committed crimes. As Ronderos puts it, this project looked at how “churches were being investigated in many places for criminal activities such as money laundering and other financial crimes.”
  • Migrants from Another World reported on how thousands of people leave Asia and Africa each year to cross through Latin America, defying multiple obstacles and dangers, to seek protection and a future in North America. “That investigation showed the kind of puzzle that CLIP could put together,” said José Luis Peñarredonda, CLIP’s audience editor.
  • Contagious Lies, a project that explored how politicians, public figures, publications, and peddlers of supposed miracle cures spread misinformation during the coronavirus pandemic. Peñarredonda’s take: “Pure traditional transnational journalistic investigating, coupled with digital research, with the study of social networks to understand how everything was moving, how these groups were recruiting, how they were telling the lies, how they were becoming so influential and through what platforms.”
  • Journey to the Heart of Odebrecht, published as part of an investigative collaboration, revisits the emblematic corruption case, also known as Operation Lava Jato, which caused a political earthquake in 2014 when it became known that Brazilian companies were involved in money laundering, bribery, and illicit campaign financing. “We want to find more Lava Jatos,” says Giannina Segnini, pointing to how they worked with allies to look for patterns through the use of technology to dig deeper into stories.

CLIP, at Your Service

For Ronderos, CLIP’s commitment to collaboration runs counter to a tradition of competition among media organizations. Instead, its core philosophy believes that, in an era of overabundant information, value is not in simply coming first with a story but in working together to raise its quality, to reach agreements to achieve a multiplying effect for the investigations. In a sense, CLIP seeks to be the tide that lifts the boats.

“For me, the work of CLIP and their narrative on the importance of collaboration is very valuable,” says Enrique Gasteazoro, director of the Central America Regional Media Project at Internews, an independent media development organization. “Beyond the fact that it was reinforced by the context, by the need that drove this type of collaboration, CLIP was a reference at a conceptual level. It had journalists whose trajectory is very well established, betting on collaboration and breaking the traditional ways of doing things.”

Members of the CLIP team. Image: Courtesy of CLIP

“CLIP comes in with added value to support journalists. It does not come in to tell them what to do, it comes in to ask them: ‘How can we help you?’” explains Emiliana García, CLIP’s general manager and one of the co-founders.

Have you been given a trove of leaked documents? They can help you process the data and find a way in, technically and editorially. Do you have security fears? They can help you encrypt your work, obtain pro bono legal review, or help reporters get out if necessary.

“We see CLIP as a solution and service center, not as a media organization that is competing with others,” Ronderos says.

From the onset, a commitment to developing and sharing technological tools that can benefit others lies at the forefront of these services. It was there as early as the Miroslava Project, for which CLIP’s data architect Rigoberto Carvajal created “La Vecindad” (“The Neighborhood”), an encrypted platform where collaborators can safely share information.

“CLIP always knew that it wanted to develop a very strong technological focus. From the beginning we were thinking about applying for funds to be able to develop technology within CLIP for the service of journalism,” García says.

On the one side, digital tools are purchased so reporters can use them freely, with workshops on how to use them provided at cost; on the other, in-house tech developments are shared with collaborators and remain at the service of all those who work with CLIP. The result is more skilled journalists and improved investigations, with access to better tools, not only in their work with CLIP but also in their reporting.

For Gasteazoro, this is part of the truer definition of what cross-border and collaborative journalism should be, not only an exercise across geographies, but across disciplines: “Journalism needs to learn from data science, from more creative disciplines, or academic research disciplines. In other words, cross-border is the ability to go beyond the boundaries of your discipline or your industry, to learn lessons and to bring them in and incorporate them.”

It is a richness of outlook that has characterized CLIP throughout its growth over the years, whether seeking allies beyond journalism, helping to produce documentariespodcastsbooks in digital and print format, and reports on AI and machine learning.

“I have seen us grow from an organization that did investigative journalism to an organization that provides a host of services and thus plays a very unique role in the media ecosystem in Latin America,” says Peñarredonda.

“We have managed to expand our network of collaborators in the continent; begun to work with people who are not journalists, with digital ministries, with civil society, with academics, with activists to do stories. Over the years, I’ve seen the growth and maturation of this whole model of radical collaboration.”

Gradual Growth With a Vision

In terms of organizational development, the foundations were laid three years before CLIP’s launch, when the team secured seed capital from both The Atlantic and the Tinker Foundations, followed by a Google News Initiative grant. Over the years, they have also received funding from Luminate, Open Society Foundations, and the Ford Foundation, among others. Emiliana García’s decade-long work and experience in Costa Rica laid the groundwork for being registered as a nonprofit in the country, also chosen due to its democratic and financial stability.

A core of four members who came together for the first investigations — Ronderos, García, Carvajal, and journalist Andrés Bermúdez Liévano — were joined in 2020 by Peñarredonda, followed by other new staffers over the years to reach the current total of 17, including administration team members and front and back-end engineers.

Up next, Garcia says they will be looking to the future with both a macro and institutional vision, focusing not only on CLIP’s investigative mission but also aiming to contribute to the broader journalism industry.

“It motivates me a lot to think, in the face of a tremendous economic crisis, how can we be a kind of laboratory so that what we learn — what we see that is useful or not useful — can be shared,” García says.

For Ronderos, the goal is to ensure that journalists can continue their work in the face of the double crisis of the media’s struggling economic model and the regression of press freedom, which has ranged from gag orders to the use of spyware, judicial and physical attacks, and led many newsrooms into exile. Strengthening the investigative ecosystem allows journalists to have the tools, the data, the help, and the access so they do not have to back down when holding the powerful accountable — or have to stand alone in facing them.

“We want to have an effect so people do not feel alone in the face of terrifying regimes,” Ronderos says. “So they can ensure that the record remains for history, for change, to show at some point what these regimes are doing, and to discredit their propaganda. We want those journalists to know they’re not alone… We are here, and we are all bound together.”

Diego Courchay is an associate editor at The Delacorte Review and a GIJN collaborator. He previously worked as a news producer for NBC TELEMUNDO, and as a reporter for Agencia EFE, Nexos, and Proceso magazine. He is a graduate of Columbia University in New York, and writes and reports in English, Spanish, and French.

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