Interviews | July 2, 2016 at 3:50 pm

Risks, Stories and Advice on Investigative Journalism: Interview with Hugo Alconada Mon

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2089249w180Hugo Alconada Mon is originally from La Plata, Argentina and graduated from the University of La Plata Law School. He is currently the editor of Investigations at La Nación, an Argentine publication where he has worked since 2002. Alconada Mon has won various prestigious awards for his investigations and even participated in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) investigation that resulted in the release of the Panama Papers earlier this year.

Harvard Political Review: What is the biggest danger about being an investigative journalist?

Hugo Alconada Mon: Definitely the risk of getting killed for looking into suspicious things––even when you run into something that is not to the liking of the newspaper itself, or being fired when you make a grave mistake. Even being sent to trial, being sent threats, but definitely one of the worst things is when they threaten your family. Luckily, it has only happened to us very few times but you have to recognize it simply as the rules of the game.

HPR: And you’ve gotten used to that?

HAM: Yes, one of the things is that I know that I won’t be receiving hugs and kisses from the “other side.” Au contraire, I’m prepared to receive threats and insults.

HPR: I saw that you participated in the investigation of the Panama Papers, do you think that Mauricio Macri [the Argentine president] has responded in an appropriate manner?

HAM: No. I think it was one of the reasons why the Panama Papers became a really big headache for him. Because he had neither neither the cunning nor the agility nor the sufficient speed to address the Panama Papers. On the contrary, one of the people with larger problems was Vladimir Putin and he reacted quickly, in cynical fashion, with cunning, and he ended up turning something that could have been a big problem for his administration into nothing.

HPR: I was reading one of your books concerning the story about Boudou and Ciccone and you write about one of your experiences where you state that you never pay for information… Why is that? And does that limit you or help you?

HAM: I think you’re also poking at the question of if that is something that happens a lot in the journalism scene… Let’s see, there are many people that pay for information, but not me, never and under no circumstances. In practice what has happened is that, firstly, rumors spread, and so everyone, even those that are being investigated, know that I play clean… I tell my source from the get go that I will not pay for any sort of information, and 90% of the time I get up and leave the conversation.

The truth is, you can obtain the same information from other sources and sometimes the information they have is not that important. And also, maybe even out of selfishness, it is not worth paying for information because of the risks it implies. If you pay someone for information, and [the source], with the sole purpose of charging you money, starts giving you false information or offering it to the highest bidder, you as the journalist end up in a pile of mud and excrement. I prefer to just say, “You want to talk to me, talk to me,” but once the question of money is put forward, I say, “No, thank you.”

HPR: I was reading that just this past Wednesday [May 18th, 2016] that the House of Representatives has just approved a law regarding access to government and public documents. Why is Argentina so late in sanctioning a law like this given that this is prevalent in democratic countries?

HAM: Because the political class did not want to provide the information to anyone… [W]hat you get is a political class that handles the public administration as if it were private––public information as if it were private, public property as if it were private property. They forget that they work in the public sector. What happens? Well, in that context, as it happens now and in past instances, you have to take advantage of the moments, political opportunities.

For example, in 2003, when Nestor Kirchner became president he signed the Decree 1702-2003, which was a decree that allowed for access to public information. Given that it was a decree coming from the executive branch, it limited access solely to information that existed in the realm of the executive branch. He [Nestor Kirchner] could not open up access to information that derived from the judicial or legislative branch… As the Kirchner administration continued to be in power, newspapers began to ask for information about their administration… And let me tell you, nine out of ten times that we would ask for information, they simply would not provide it. As time went on, they would not even respond to our inquiries. Now, with the new administration in power, we are presented with the opportunity to pressure the government and put into effect this new law, which would allow access to information from all public sectors, to see if it works or not.

In Argentina, you actually have two distinct Argentinas. One is the Argentina in theory and the other is the real Argentina. In the former, you have indexes of hunger at zero; in the latter, there are malnourished children. In the former, you have a law where public assets cannot be touched nor frozen; in the latter, public assets are misused and rerouted. In the former, you have the law that prevents devaluation of the Argentine peso…and you get the point. With this new decree, it will take us a few months to figure out if it works in practice as it should in theory.

HPR: Given what you just said, how were you able to investigate all these state affairs without access to official state documents?

HAM: Sources. That is why the development and recruiting of sources is a fundamental task. Time is also fundamental to allow for a growing sense of trust between the journalist and the source. Perseverance, too, to get in touch with the right person. Literally, I have called 100 or 200 times, waiting to be answered via phone. A record of mine comes from trying to get in touch with a certain individual named Roberto Nicolas Lucero: I had to track down 200 people with the last name Lucero all over the country until I found the guy’s brother in Mendoza who later told me that the Lucero I was searching for was actually dead. You also have to keep in mind the perseverance it takes to gather information. The first time I question you about something uncomfortable, you are obviously not going to tell me straight away. But perhaps, by the 100th time I ask you, you will start telling me something. You also have to develop a mutual sense of trust. If I respect your desire to keep something off the record and the source begins to trust me, then I begin to ask for something essential––papers. If a source has something to tell me, great, but give me the papers.

HPR: I heard from someone that at La Nación, you guys use the Archivarius method. What does that method consist of?

HAM: Amongst others, yes. What you have is, a very wise decision, that was made at the paper, this idea that a few years ago was being developed by Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post. The idea was to combine journalists with techies, to put engineers, analysts, metadata experts, all those people, into the system. It is about combining journalism with new technologies and with the computer experts. At La Nación, we have La Nación Data, which follows this line of thought and puts people in charge of data fests which help develop apps and all that. We essentially put system analysts and engineers with the journalists.

HPR: Last question: for prospective investigative journalists, what is the one thing you would give them as advice?

HAM: Read…read. To read in two ways: one, to read [works of] the maestros. To read from authors whom you would consider guides and to read them with a critical mind. For example, when I read books from authors I consider maestros, I read and analyze how they did [their research]. I try to understand what types of questions they made, how they covered the weaker parts of their investigation, the holes, how they developed their sources, etc…

A book I consider very important is The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright, a journalist from The New Yorker who wrote “the big book” about Al-Qaeda. Take, for example, his page of acknowledgements in the first chapter, which is no less than 50 pages. Those 50 pages are a masterful demonstration of journalism. Why? Because the only thing this guy does is recreate how he accumulated the data for the first chapter, all the documents, all the people that provided him with documents and interviews among others, etc…You, as the reader, are like holy shit, he interviewed all these people, read all these documents, travelled to all these countries, just for the first chapter. Fact is, maybe you do not care about Al-Qaeda, maybe it interests you or not, but that one chapter is absolute work of journalism. That is what I mean when I say to read…to read those you consider to be maestros, to learn from them, and when it is your turn to investigate something, you can read about journalists who did investigations on similar topics in different countries.

And so, you start from there…you begin to understand the methodology of the investigation. One of the best books about [investigative journalism] is the manual written by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) from the United States, who have made the 5th or 6th edition by now of the manual. The manual is methodology of investigation based on concrete cases. I have it. I bought it after I won the Saint Howard Scholarship and after I went to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, even the Willamette Week of Portland, Oregon, which is a free weekly newspaper in Portland. In all those places, the manual was always there. You realize you have to buy that manual, and I actually have it in my office. But that is what I would say, to read.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image source: La Nación

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