By Natalia Viana in the Nation:
By the middle of January 2011, it was clear that the two Brazilian partners were losing interest in the cables and were dedicating less and less space to “Cablegate” stories. I started a blog, which attracted a strong readership. That’s how Phase II of the WikiLeaks coverage—engaging the nontraditional media—began.
Rather than deciding myself what to cover, I let the public select issues that were of interest to them. Using the WikiLeaks database of Brazil-related cables, I requested that my readers submit topics to search for in the collection. After conducting a search, I would send the relevant documents to a group of bloggers, who would then publish stories based on them. This generated some interesting articles—revealing, for example, the meetings between US officials and opposition leaders like presidential candidate José Serra, who hinted at a closer relationship with Washington should he win. Neither Folha nor O Globo, who were seen as harsh critics of the Lula government, published any stories about opposition leaders.
As the bloggers’ interest in the cables faded by mid-March, with hundreds of documents yet to be reviewed, I and a group of women journalists decided to create Brazil’s first nonprofit center for investigative journalism, called Publica. Based on similar US media organizations like ProPublica, it would publish stories that could be freely reproduced under a creative-commons license. Our first challenge was to review the remaining WikiLeaks documents and see what stories they held.
Staffing a temporary newsroom with fifteen volunteer journalists, we were able to publish another fifty articles based on the cables. My favorite new revelation was the secret transfer to Brazil by the United States of thirty Drug Enforcement Administration personnel who had previously been expelled from Bolivia for spying and aiding the opposition. The new stories created another stir in the Brazilian press. But more than that, they proved it was possible for an independent investigative group to match the traditional news outlets when it came to producing professional journalism—and to following the story where the mainstream media would not take it.
The impact of WikiLeaks on the Brazilian media community has been unmistakable: within a couple of months, articles based on documents from Brazil’s dictatorship period started popping up in the press. Folha de S. Paulo started its own WikiLeaks-type section, the “FolhaLeaks,” and established an investigative unit in Brasília. More investigative stories are being produced by both the traditional and the independent media. A year later, corporate media outlets such as Globo and Grupo Bandeirantes—major TV networks in Brazil—are fighting to sponsor the annual congress of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism. And Publica is now up and running.
The response to the leaks also demonstrated that, more than twenty-five years after the end of military rule, the Brazilian public is ready and eager to advance toward a more transparent and accountable society. Brazil’s “Cablegate” generated a much-delayed debate about the lack of transparency in government and the need for a Freedom of Access Law. Journalists’ associations ramped up their demands for such a law to be adopted at once. Fernando Rodrigues, who was a director of the Brazilian Association for Investigative Journalism, wrote an article criticizing how slowly the law was being debated in Congress. When the president of the Senate, José Sarney, declared that documents should remain secret because “we cannot do a WikiLeaks of Brazilian history,” he was heavily criticized.