Agencia Ocote: Catching Fire in the Midst of a Pandemic
By: Olga Valeria Espinoza, FCAM Communications Officer.
Coronavirus added to the many challenges faced by journalists in Central America. Fact checking fake news, the rates of infections and deaths, as well as government corruption even at such a critical time is being experienced across the world. These are only a few of the many challenges they face day to day. Alejandra Gutiérrez, director and lead editor for Agencia Ocote (Ocote Agency), an FCAM grantee partner, tells us in the following interview about facing the pandemic, and the importance of allying with other media outlets in Latin America.
Agencia Ocote is a group of professionals focused on journalistic investigation that interprets the reality of Mesoamerica through a pluralistic lens. Its main thematic areas are organized through Program Lines [Perspectives] and include: the Women and Gender Program [La Cocina Lab-The Kitchen Lab]; Media Audit Program [Fáctica-Real Facts]; Historical Memory and Transitional Justice Program [Sincrónica-Synchronous]; Cross Cultural Program [La rocola-Jukebox]; and, Collaborative Projects [JuntarFuego-Catch Fire].
FCAM: What is it like to work in these difficult conditions? What are you doing?
This has been a tremendous challenge because we already had a set rhythm in the newsroom and planning for the topics we would cover, and then this happened. The editorial decision was essentially to turn everything around and cover the emergency. One of the essential tools that we already had in place was Fáctica, our project for fact checking and auditing the media, which from the beginning we considered to be an important contribution due to the avalanche of disinformation out there. On the other hand, it would detect disinformation campaigns about issues directly related to COVID-19.
We were also writing educational materials and designing graphical resources about prevention, care, etc. We made these materials available to organizations and other media outlets.
We also began to investigate the lack of information coming out of the government of Guatemala. We published several pieces about testing, there was and continues to be a lack of information. We investigated how many tests the government had, about the corruption in government purchasing and supplies in health centers, and issues related to women and other crises that are being lived parallel to the pandemic.
Then about two months after COVID-19 exploded we thought it was necessary that we continue working on some of our routine areas of focus, because Radio Ocote and several of our platforms switched to just covering the coronavirus when all of this started. We decided to maintain the issues that we were already working on, including a special that was called Las Recias (The Strong Ones) about women in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. In this Las Recias special not all are present, of course. But we wanted to build a saga about potent and powerful women in Central America. The format is being presented as a podcast and each episode presents a self-portrait of women speaking with tenacity, without fear of speaking and women working for their goals. In the first season, you can hear musicians, scientists, academics, activists and businesswomen.
La Cocina Lab is our section on women, we have published reports of sexual assault in a private university in Guatemala. We have also been producing our monthly dialogues in a virtual format. These spaces, or classic talks, are called the Terraza Imaginaria (Imaginary Terrace). We put to formats together: one in which three panelists and a moderator from Agencia Ocote or from among the invitees, and the other is like a consultation in which an expert answers questions. We ask the questions on social media and during Facebook Live so that the expert can answer them. For example, around when coronavirus began we invited the president of the infectology association to answer questions, and later a psychologist answering questions about mental health. We have also made these consultations into a narrative text of questions and answers for those who were unable to follow the event on social media or that prefer to read. In July, we have a session with a lawyer and a doctor that will tell us what to do if you are a victim of violence. We believe it is necessary to continue the debate about problems that existed before the arrival of the coronavirus.
We have been working on a special about violence against women, we have been working on it since last year in collaboration with El Faro from El Salvador and Contracorriente from Honduras, we were planning to publish it in March but were set back by the pandemic. It is a large project that presents data from the last 10 years. We created a microsite on our webpage that will include narrative text telling the story of a women from each country, her path to justice, a description of how impunity functions and the struggle to define femicide, which exists across the region. There will also be data and statistics on the site. The special is divided into three pieces: one on femicides, one on disappearances, and the last one is still under consideration, it might be about economic violence or about women and COVID-19.
One of the biggest challenges has been the inability to go out into the field, it is important to us to take care of the team. But we also cannot forget our main areas of focus, which include women’s insights and perspectives.
FCAM: How has the reaction been to your publications?
It sounds paradoxical, but we have really grown in visits and articles reach on our webpage. It is clear that this is a moment in which people are looking for information. A month had gone by and we had tripled our visits. There is a lot of interaction with the public, and we consider that to be highly positive. A lot of people are sending questions, doubts and reports. It has been interesting to have that dialogue with people and that people come forward to question us, there is so much that we cannot even keep up with it. We took note our audience expands when we are recognized as a reference for fact checking information and women’s issues.
FCAM: Why have you done it this way?
Between laughs Alejandra tells us: I ask myself that every morning. We have talked a lot about that in the newsroom. We are all questioning the ‘why’ and the ‘what for’ of our work. This is a transcendental moment to understand the meaning of journalism, to help people access the correct information for making the correct decisions and improve their lives inasmuch as possible. In everything that we do, we try to show what this system is, that this pandemic is only putting a magnifying glass on issues that have long been there. We inform to try to help in some way, to provide tools that are useful to people and especially to women.
FCAM: What alliances have emerged or have been important in the midst of the pandemic?
Many alliances have emerged. One is together with Oxfam Nicaragua, called Otras Miradas (Other Perspectives). It includes media partners from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua. The first publication covered issues related to COVID-19. Julio Serrano, the creative coordinator, and I covered a story in a municipality relatively close to the capital. We told the story of a domestic worker and a community where people do not have anything to eat.
We also had a relationship with LatamChequea, coordinated by Chequeado from Argentina, which created a very interesting fact-checking network. We started working with them and made a platform that includes all of the disinformation and fact-checking from throughout Latin America.
Other initiatives have emerged, including Salud con Lupa (Health with a Magnifying Glass), which is a health journalism project. The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) invited Agencia Ocote to be its media partner in Guatemala. This has permitted us to have one regional journalist completely dedicated to health issues, which is a relief as we are a small newsroom. There are 10 media outlets from 10 countries in Latin America participating in this project.
FCAM: In this scenario that at times becomes so complex and disheartening, what gives you strength? What keeps you going?
Knowing that we are useful. I am convinced that we are a dedicated and passionate team with vocation and conviction in what we are doing. I feel very thankful for the team we have. Everyone, or nearly everyone has placed limits on our work for self-care so as to not overextend ourselves, but we are working much more and handing double the normal amount of work. It is about being convinced that we are useful and that our work is necessary, and while there are many media outlets in Guatemala, it just is not enough.
Likewise, working in collaboration with others is extremely motivating. Knowing that there are a lot of people working together. In addition to the organizations that have supported us, that feeling of knowing that FCAM is with us is also very motivating. Knowing that what we are doing has purpose and seeing that it can make an impact, like the investigation about testing started an important conversation about this issue that reached the Guatemalan Congress, and pressure was increased to find out how much had been spent. That is when we realized that something about what we are doing was working. This is not to say that we enjoy seeing bad things happen, but there are things that we can change with our work. That singular sensation keeps us going.
We invite you to visit Agencia Ocote’s social media pages:
 “Ocote Agency” – Ocotes are pine needles, often used for kindling.