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Guest post: Digital map of crime and corruption gives impetus to citizen journalism in Panama




Guest post by Jorge Luis Sierra, Knight International Journalism Fellow at the International Center for Journalists

Panamanian journalists are developing the “My Transparent Panama” platform as a model digital tool that can be used to cover crime and corruption in Latin America. The project is an online digital map that plots citizen-provided information about incidents ranging from fraud and theft to murder and rape.

My Transparent Panama is a collaboration between citizen reporters and professional journalists to investigate crime and corruption. It is based off of the Ushahidi (literally “witness” in Swahili) platform, which was developed in Kenya to track attacks and killing on a Google map. The same tool has been used to monitor violence in the Gaza Strip, for observing elections in Mexico and Brazil, for tracking crime in Atlanta, covering the gulf oil spill, and to cover the aftermath of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. (See other Knight Center stories about the platform here.)

Ushahidi allows users to make reports directly on the website, map the location, date, and time of the episode, and even upload photos and video. In Panama, we additionally have the ability to receive reports from citizens via text messages to the number 5638.

The project covers the entire country. We have received reports from practically every Panamanian province. People are reporting cases of nepotism, political use of social assistance, corruption in government services, the use of official vehicles for personal use, fraudulent businesses, schemes to defraud consumers, places where drugs are being sold, illegal landing strips, and the location of drug trafficking cells.

As you can see, users are reporting on sensitive issues. Citizen reports are not put directly onto the website: A moderator filters information that might put the user at risk or passes over stories that do not appear to be credible, could be deliberately false, libelous, or done with intent to harm. In any case, users are responsible for the accuracy of the information they send.

From October 2010 to the beginning of February, we have collected 287 citizen reports – 100 via text message – of which 52% were corruption allegations. The other top categories included murder, armed assault, and theft. Over the last six months the site has had 2610 absolute unique visitors and 9530 page views.

We are finishing the journalist training stage, and next we will begin the investigation phase and the production of stories related to the citizen reports.

The project is integrated with civil society organizations. The Journalists’ Forum for Freedom of Expression and Information and Transparency International are our principal partners, along with the Grand National Alliance for Public Safety. Ushahidi and eMoksha provide technical support. However, the most important challenged faced by the project has been making journalists understand the value of information provided by citizen reporters and ensuring they stay united in spite of competition between the media outlets for whom they work.

The project’s main idea is to have citizen reports investigated by journalists and that stories and features are published and broadcast based on this information. Ultimately, this can improve the quality of investigative journalism in Panama and open new paths for collaboration between journalists and citizens.

However, civil society also has an important role to play. Citizen reports are handled by pro bon lawyers working for Transparency International’s Panama division, who advise citizens and journalists on anticorruption issues. We are currently in conversations with the National Police to share criminal allegations and pass on citizen petitions for police action.

Jorge Luis Sierra is a Mexican journalist specialized in security and defense issues and directs the My Transparent Panama project. Sierra, who covered the war in Iraq in 2003, has worked as an editor and a writer for the Hispanic newspapers La Voz de Houston and Rumbo in Texas, and Qué Pasa in North Carolina. He also has worked for some of the most influential newspapers and magazines in Mexico, such as El Universal, Contralínea, Proceso, Reforma, El Independiente, Expansión, Siglo 21, and To2.com.


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