CIPER is an online Chilean research and information center focused on reporting and investigative journalism.
Posted by Claudio Ruiz on Jan 28, 2011
CIPER is a Chilean journalism research and information center focused on reporting and investigative journalism, and on publicizing the national rules of access to public information to promote further scrutiny of political power. CIPER operates as a nonprofit corporation with different funding sources, both domestic and international, with an important contribution from the Copesa Group, a Chilean media company. At its start, CIPER was supported by grants from the Open Society Institute and the Ford Foundation. The organization is transitioning to a non-profit foundation model, but it currently relies largely on the funding it receives from Copesa.
In addition to investigative journalism—which led to prestigious awards, such as the New Journalism Award 2007 and the Journalism Award of Excellence 2008—CIPER has played an important role in enforcing Chile’s new public transparency legislation (enacted in April 2009) by making information requests of the government during the course of its investigative reporting efforts and by educating journalists in how to navigate the new information access policies.
While CIPER was not initially intended as an online platform, the organization’s work over the years has been closely connected to digital media. Today the publication of content and reporting is done entirely online, and the organization uses social networks as an additional mechanism for the dissemination of content. An important part of its investigative journalism is also based on sources that communicate via these platforms. Many of these reports are republished by traditional media, widening the reach of CIPER’s work.
My name is Francisca Skoknic, and I am CIPER’s editor. Our director, Mónica González, had long felt that there weren’t in the traditional media people devoted exclusively to in-depth journalism and research—journalism that scrutinizes the authorities and fills spaces not covered by the editorial line.
At the very beginning, we did not plan to have a website. Our business model was a little idealistic. We thought we could create very interesting investigative reports that we could sell to traditional media below cost—at a price not reflective of the real cost of the report. But the Chilean market is small, and it’s very difficult to compete. Thus after three months we set up the website, which I personally did not have much faith in. I thought it would be too shielded and that it would not have adequate dissemination. Our reports are not typical light Internet reading. We come from a print journalism background. We write long pieces, and a computer screen is not always best. But the truth is the effect it generated was a great surprise.
The idea is to do investigative journalism based on documents. Two years before the transparency law was passed [in August 2008; the law went into effect in April 2009] we proposed a goal of using existing legislation, which didn’t give you the tools to demand information but ensured transparency in some ways. We had to think about documents that were accessible or public and that we could ask for and use in our reporting somehow. It’s hard work, because it usually takes longer to obtain the documents than to do the story. When we publish an article based on documents obtained via the transparency law, we upload a scan of the original documents. The idea is that you read the story and open the original documents. In some cases, the document is powerful evidence for the report, so no one can question what we have written. In other cases, we write about the process of obtaining the documents. For example, we brought several cases before the Council for Transparency and took two the Court of Appeals [during the course of obtaining documents].
There are issues that are not attractive to traditional media. Our impact is greatly diminished if other media do not respond. In terms of transparency, there is always resistance to delivering information.
We have an email database that allows us to reach a wider audience, along with social networks that help to engage audiences on certain subjects.
Readers who follow our work realize that the issues that are not in the mainstream media are more important. People feel our stories are filling a void, which is a very important criterion in determining what to publish. That generates a loyal group of readers.
On one hand, there are issues that touch the public and private. That is the case, for example, with an investigation of the public bid to build a new technology platform for personal data in the Civil Registry, a process that was flawed. It was a public sector project, but with links to a private company.
Another area we’ve focused on is non-profit institutions. The idea is to find areas where private entities are required to provide personal and sensitive information to the public sector, and then to look at how the non-profit sector differs in its reporting requirements. We are fighting for the legal reports and statements of non-profit foundations to be made public, as well as those of companies in the stock market. It’s been a long process and we’ve achieved some things. We are in the midst of a case against President Sebastián Piñera’s Futuro Foundation to have access to its accounting information, and if we win this case it will help set a baseline for what information is actually public and how this information must to be reported.
In cases that have to do with private companies and the like, we use traditional methods of documentation based on existing reporting requirements.
Outside the country, yes. In fact, much of our work is dedicated to informing people about how CIPER works. There is a similar project in Puerto Rico, with the difference that the bulk of our funding comes from Copesa. That fact changes the way we work, because it gives us an element of job security that many non-profit organizations lack. In terms of performance, origin, and evolution, we are constantly giving seminars and workshops on investigative journalism in Latin America. In addition, we were founded at the same time as another research center in the United States, ProPublica. However, they have more tools to track the responses of the public and private sectors and to devise new tools for efficiently monitoring public policies.
Informally we have cooperated with a few, but we don’t have a formal relationship with any. We have a few relationships with transparency organizations, such as Foundation Proacceso, who occasionally support specific cases or projects we have.
How have you addressed those fears about operating a web platform, and strengthened your links with traditional media?
It works in different ways, because we make arrangements for specific topics with traditional media. For example, we have an agreement with Qué Pasa magazine. What happens, though, is that very good stories may not be published because of lack of agreement with traditional media. The bulk of our reporting remains on the web platform because it is difficult to coordinate deadlines and timeframes.
On the other hand, to build a website takes time. Now we have a webmaster who is responsible for its maintenance, and thanks to that we now have more audio and multimedia tools.
How do you use tools such as Twitter, Facebook and RSS?
At the beginning it was more personalized, but today we notify readers when we post updates and certain alert topics. We have a link where people can give us information in addition to Facebook and Twitter. For example, once we used it to cover a breaking story about public scholarships, and asked people for help by sending their results. That allowed us to set up a database immediately, and thus affirmed the analysis of the problematic results of the scholarships.