Diana Salinas: “Those who want to do investigative journalism have to leave fear at home”

Clara Zid, February 2020 [Castellano]

Diana Salinas. Photo: Edward Goyeneche

“We are a handful of people trying to do what almost nobody does in Colombia”. This is how Diana Salinas describes her work as co-founder and editor-in-chief of Cuestión Pública, one of the few digital media in Colombia that dares to practice investigative and counter-power journalism. Their mission is, she assures, “to be the watchful eyes of power on behalf of the ordinary citizen”. That is why Cuestión Pública just has won the Simón Bolívar National Journalism Prize 2019.

“Four meetings between Uribe, Odebrecht and the bribe payer” is the title of the Simón Bolívar’s winning paper. It delves into the bribes paid by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to various Latin American politicians, specifically former Colombian president and senator Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

Cuestión Pública has published several reports on the Odebrecht scandal and it was due to these reports their website came under DDoS attacks. They were referred to Qurium’s pro-bono Rapid Response service for assistance: “Since Qurium manages our hosting and we are under their watch, I am absolutely calm. I feel that we are being cared for and protected by the best and this makes it possible for us to work without pressure and threat of being attacked again”, explains Diana.

Recently, Qurium and Cuestión Pública conducted a joint research to analyze the mobile application Kontacto, which tracked the voting intentions of thousands of voters in the October 2019 elections in Colombia. The application, in addition to being fraudulent, was insecure and put the personal information of those voters at risk, as Qurium discovered. The Colombian Superintendence of Industry and Commerce has opened an investigation into the matter.

The team of journalists who make up Cuestión Pública is obsessed, according to Diana. “We are obsessed with digging up the truth about what the powerful want to hide, such as moves of banking corporations, arrangements under the table in public contracting, route of public money, rural conflicts over land tenure, political alliances that benefit private interests or anything related to the Colombian post-conflict”.

Diana says she has no fear for her physical security, although she will never forget an incidence when working on her most dangerous report, “Californication” : “We got into the middle of digging up the patrimony of Colombia’s most influential character in political terms”, she says. While they were conducting the investigation, a taxi exploded next her house and a colleague warned her that this was the extinct Administrative Department of Security’s way of intimidating journalists. This Department was famous for illegally intercepting politicians, judges and journalists under the government of Álvaro Uribe. Although she could not prove that the taxi fire was occasional or arson.

“There are people who harass with demands, rectifications and guardianship to get the news turned around in their favor”

Diana is used to pressure and retaliation for her articles: “There are people who harass with demands, rectifications and guardianship to get the news turned around in their favor”. And the fact is, she assures, “whoever wants to do investigative journalism and counter-power has to leave fear at home”. The idea, she says, “is never to die in the attempt, but every day one lives a little with these abuses, then one learns to protect itself”.

Photo: Edward Goyeneche

According to the journalist, Colombia is a country with “many difficulties in working under respect for freedom of expression”. 634 press freedom violations were recorded in 2019 alone, according to the Foundation for Freedom of the Press (FLIP). Reporters Without Borders’ 2019 barometer states that “Latin America remains a dangerous region for news professionals, with a total of 14 murders (10 in Mexico, 2 in Honduras, 1 in Colombia and 1 in Haiti), Latin America has become as deadly a place for journalists as the Middle East”.

In addition to threats, censorship persecutes journalists: “I prepared a report on a president of Congress who abused his power. This investigation resulted in that the TV program I was working on, which had been a reference point for journalism in Colombia for 12 years, was closed down and about 25 people were left without work”, she explains.

This episode convinced Diana to co-found her own media outlet in 2018, with David Tarazona and Claudia Baez. The current team consists of the three founding partners plus an accountant, the hearing officer, a legal editor, two investigative journalists and contributors. In total, between twelve and fifteen people, seven of whom are paid

Before that, Diana had already won the Simón Bolívar National Prize twice, with the reports “The Attorney General’s Abuses of Power” and Magnifying Glass on High Court Judges”. The first one delved into the anti-LGTBI policies of a public official who employed family members of people in charge of his re-election. The second investigated several magistrates who sold court rulings.

When I detect this ‘mismatch’ between human rights, misappropriation of public resources and the powerful flaunting what belongs to everyone, I want to expose it as soon as possible

Diana explains that she got into this risky profession because “I love to put my finger on the sore spot, to irritate with the truth”. What motivates her to carry out these investigations is “what is ‘neglected’, when I detect this ‘mismatch’ between human rights, misappropriation of public resources and the powerful flaunting what belongs to everyone, I immediately get adrenaline and want to expose it as soon as possible, so that the abuse stops”.

It is, she says, an “obsession that is difficult to resist, I am obsessive about doing journalism” and it doesn’t matter if the abusers are well-known or anonymous. Over time, she says, “I’ve realized that we are a society of abusers”.