Puerto Rican journalism’s ‘new awareness’

Demonstrators waving flags of Puerto Rico at a July 25 rally after the announcement of the resignation of Governor Rosselló. Alejandro Granadillo/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

On July 13, Centro de Periodismo Investigativo (CPI), a nonprofit newsroom in Puerto Rico, published 889 pages of private messages sent between then-Governor Ricardo Rosselló and his top aides. Those messages—which included homophobic and misogynistic language, and comments that mocked victims of Hurricane María—generated widespread news coverage and prompted protests that ultimately led to Rosselló’s resignation. 

Much of the ensuing “RickyLeaks” coverage overlooked a focal point for Rosselló and his aides: the news media. “What these chats showed is the extent to which the previous administration tried to game, push, pressure, and cajole the media to do certain things that maybe otherwise wouldn’t do in terms of favoring that particular government,” Federico Subervi, a media studies professor at the University of Leeds in Britain who studies Puerto Rican journalism, says. 

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The leaked messages include exchanges in which Rosselló and his advisers discuss plans to influence the media to target an opposing party, the Popular Democratic Party (PPD). Chat participants solicited a journalist from Foro Noticioso to question the PPD about fundraising activities, and gave questions to a Univisión (WKAQ 580) radio host ahead of an interview with the president of the PPD. The Univisión host, Rubén Sánchez, said on his show that while he often receives such requests, he always chooses his own questions. (Foro Noticioso did not respond to requests from CJR.)

Chat participants also claimed to have successfully altered coverage in some publications, although those publications have denied such claims. In another exchange, Carlos Bermúdez, a public-relations adviser to Rosselló, said El Nuevo Día, one of Puerto Rico’s most widely read newspapers, “had to change” a headline about the reopening of El San Juan Hotel, one of the island’s luxury hotel. Grupo Ferré-Rangel (GFR), the paper’s parent company, responded in a July 15 article: “The defamatory and libelous information that was spread in the chat, which has been picked up and distorted in other forums, is completely false.” 

One conversation between chat participants concerned a front-page story in El Vocero, another top-circulating newspaper, about the resignation of public affairs secretary Ramón Rosario Cortés. In one message, Edwin Miranda, president of the advertising agency KOI Americas, which managed government advertising accounts, referred to the president of El Vocero, Salvador Hasbún, and said Hasbún altered the front-page photo. “Yes. It is retouched, Salvador sent it to me yesterday to see what we could do,” Miranda wrote. “He didn’t want us to cancel the advertising contracts for the rest of the year.” Bermúdez responded, “Well done.” Hasbún, who previously said he had not spoken to Miranda about the front-page photo, told CJR, “We don’t allow outside intervention in our content.”

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For some, that exchange—in which advertising is seemingly leveraged to ensure favorable coverage—furthered a distrust of Puerto Rico’s legacy news outlets, which they believe are given access to information withheld from other publications. “What people did not know—and what the chat put in black and white—was that some of these things were actually in exchange for advertising,” says Oscar Serrano, co-founder and editor in chief of NotiCel, the digital publication that first reported on the chat. The source that provided Serrano with the transcripts of the messages in the chat was adamant that the island’s legacy newspapers not be involved with reporting the story, Serrano says, “because it did not trust the agenda that traditional media has in Puerto Rico.”

Subervi says fear of losing advertising funds can influence coverage even when there is no direct contact with government. “It’s not that there’s a conspiracy,” he says. “It’s just that there’s a modus operandi of, ‘I’ll cover you nicely. You, hopefully at some point, will give us sources—and if you give us advertising, even better.’”

 

CONNECTIONS BETWEEN politicians and the press are not new for Puerto Rico. In 1945, El Nuevo Día was sold to Luis Ferré, a politician and later the founder of Rosselló’s party, the New Progressive Party. The Ferré family still runs GFR, the parent company of El Nuevo Día and several other news outlets.

El Nuevo Día clashed with the government in 1997, however, when it published a story about a corruption scandal involving then-Governor Pedro Rosselló, Ricardo Rosselló’s father. The day after that article ran, 16 government agencies canceled advertising contracts with the paper worth an estimated $4.5 million a year. The newspaper sued the government, alleging the government’s cancellation of advertisements—which it viewed as retaliation—limited freedom of the press. In 1999, the government agreed to reinstate advertising for the paper and pledged to allocate advertising to media “using objective criteria such as the cost per thousand readers reached.”

More recently, the island’s worsening economic crisis, exacerbated by the devastation brought by hurricanes Irma and María, has meant many outlets are increasingly reliant on the government for advertising revenue. Under such circumstances, says Subervi, self-censorship has become the norm. 

Serrano and Omaya Sosa Pascual, who both worked for GFR in the early 2000s, co-founded CPI in 2007 and NotiCel in 2011. They intended CPI and NotiCel, which are both digital news sites, to remain free from the pressure and influence of big advertisers, such as the government and major corporations. NotiCel maintains a variety of advertisers so that it would not be disproportionately impacted if one advertiser withdrew. CPI relies on donations from individuals and foundations who believe in its mission, as well as proceeds from events. That funding model, argues Mario Roche Morales, a professor at the University of Puerto Rico’s School of Communications, has enabled CPI to “look at matters much more in depth and to carry out investigations, something that for many years hasn’t occurred as much in the Puerto Rican commercial press.”

Other journalists are also turning to the digital sphere, where they can publish on their own schedule and unburdened by printing costs. Sandra Rodríguez Cotto, who previously worked as an investigative reporter for El Nuevo Día, played an important role in advancing the RickyLeaks story on her blog, En Blanco y Negro con Sandra. She reported on nearly 50 pages of the chat on July 10, three days before CPI published the chat in full. Rodríguez Cotto launched her blog in 2010, and she says her reporting is motivated by a sense of public service. “I think we’re experiencing a historical moment in Puerto Rico, and real journalism is needed,” she told the Christian Science Monitor, referring to the summer’s protests. “I basically wanted to be there even if I’m not getting any money out of it.”

Serrano says he would like to see those publications implicated in the chat bring in outside consultants to review their editorial processes. Univision said July 16 it would investigate the claim made in the chat that Rubén Sánchez was given a list of questions for an interview with the PPD president. In a statement to CJR, GFR defended its ongoing commitment to ethical coverage in the face of government pressures, citing its lawsuit against the Pedro Rosselló administration and, more recently, a front-page editorial calling for Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation, as evidence. “Historically, no other media outlet in Puerto Rico has worked harder to pursue transparency, call out conflicts of interest, and promote ethically driven governing than El Nuevo Día,” the statement reads. “To argue the contrary is to dismiss the truth.” 

In addition, some longstanding obstacles to information access remain. Shortly before his August 2 resignation, Rosselló signed two laws that add new restrictions to public information access. Those laws, Subervi says, extend government’s ability to control the flow of information, allowing it to release information selectively to publications that provide favorable coverage.

Roche Morales, however, sees potential for the rise of digital and independent media to usher in a “new age” of Puerto Rican journalism—one equipped to hold the island’s elite accountable. “The options that are emerging in the digital sphere are giving more options to the public to obtain information from sources without ties with the government,” Roche Morales says.

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This story has been updated for clarity.

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Danny Jin is a reporter whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The Berkshire Eagle. He is based in Williamstown, Massachusetts.