The Media Today

Watches and watchdogs in Peru

April 23, 2024
Peru's President Dina Boluarte shows her jewelry during a press conference at Government Palace in Lima, Peru, Friday, April 5, 2024. Authorities are investigating on whether she illegally received hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, luxury watches and jewelry. (AP Photo/Martin Mejia)

Recently a source told Marco Sifuentes, a journalist from Peru, that on two occasions when he met with Dina Boluarte, the country’s president, she wore a different Rolex. 

Boluarte has spoken of hailing from a modest background, and didn’t seem likely to have earned enough money in her various government jobs to afford such luxury wristwear. (Rolex prices typically start well into the thousands of dollars.) So Sifuentes asked Ernesto Cabral—a colleague at La Encerrona, a podcast and digital news show that he founded in 2020—to investigate further. 

Senior officials in Peru “still have Flickr accounts,” Sifuentes told me with a laugh, referring to an image-hosting website founded in 2004. “I knew that because, when I have to produce thumbnails for YouTube, I need high-resolution images.”

Cabral went through ten thousand such images of Boluarte—as well as consulting with experts and reviewing documents—and identified fourteen separate watches that appeared on her wrist dating back to her inauguration as a government minister in 2021, including three expensive Rolexes that only appeared after she became president, late in 2022. The day that La Encerrona’s story came out, she was spotted with a fifteenth watch; the total number of watches linked to Boluarte now stands at seventeen. 

As “Rolexgate” blew up into a big story, Boluarte initially didn’t say much. (At one point, La Encerrona posted a thumbnail superimposing a cartoon zipper over her mouth.) When she did respond, she offered conflicting stories, suggesting first that she bought the watches with her own money a long time ago, then claiming that she borrowed them from another politician and thus didn’t have to declare them, as would otherwise have been required by Peruvian law.

Either way, the scandal has become a huge political liability for Boluarte. Prosecutors initiated a corruption investigation—in the course of which law enforcement officers raided her home and battered down the door—that has since posed questions about her ownership of luxury jewelry and her financial transactions; mainstream outlets have picked up on the story, and Boluarte’s approval rating, already low, now stands in the single digits. None of this sounds especially surprising for a country that recently cycled through six presidents in as many years, where many politicians have been dogged by allegations of corruption. 

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But, as domestic and international observers have noted, Rolexgate may have broken through to a greater extent than other, more serious stories involving Boluarte, not least the deaths of more than fifty protesters in late 2022 and early 2023 as security forces clamped down brutally on protests that followed her accession to office. And the extent of the scandal—and the identity of the outlet that broke it—illuminate interesting truths about Peru’s media landscape, which is vibrant in many places, but also looks increasingly fragile.   

Sifuentes—a longtime TV and digital journalist in Peru before he moved to Spain, from where he has written books about Peruvian presidents—launched La Encerrona as a newscast at the beginning of the pandemic; he was worried about his family back home (rightly, it would turn out, given Peru’s astronomical eventual death rate) and wanted to offer a mix of information, community, and service journalism to news consumers who really needed it, packaged in a more succinct format than was available elsewhere. (La Encerrona’s name is a play on the idea of lockdown.) Sifuentes expanded his coverage beyond COVID, and La Encerrona grew quickly—fueled, he says, by a combination of hunger for information and COVID-era advances in Peruvians making payments online—to the point that he was able to hire two staffers by the end of 2020. In 2022, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that La Encerrona was reaching 9 percent of Peruvians on at least a weekly basis.

In 2021, La Encerrona covered a presidential election that pitted Pedro Castillo, an outsider candidate from a poor rural background, against Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of the autocratic former president Alberto Fujimori. (In 2009, the elder Fujimori was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison on charges of human rights violations; he was released on humanitarian grounds in December.) 

Castillo won, but in December 2022, amid wider political turbulence and a push to impeach him, he attempted to seize power from congress and force through constitutional reform. The effort failed, and he was deposed and arrested. Boluarte, his vice president, replaced him and tacked toward the political right, allying with various factions in congress. Protests flared—especially in heavily Indigenous parts of the Andes, but eventually reaching Lima, the capital—leading to the brutal police crackdown. (Among other dangers, dozens of journalists were reportedly assaulted by either police or protesters.)

Amid all this chaos, many Peruvians’ trust in mainstream media—the ownership of which is heavily concentrated in Peru, and which has often sided with the political establishment while characterizing Castillo and then the protesters as communists and terrorists—appears to have declined. Due both to this dynamic and to changing media consumption habits, news consumers are increasingly getting information from social media; the Reuters Institute found last year that in percentage terms, the Peruvian population was the world’s joint highest adopter of TikTok for news. When I asked Sifuentes what platforms La Encerrona uses to distribute its journalism, he replied, “All of them.” In a fragmented online landscape, “we have to be everywhere,” he said, “and we have to feel like we’re native” to each platform. “We have a really engaged community. And that engagement is, I think, really fueled by the…distrust in big media that there is now.”

Lourdes M. Cueva Chacón—an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University, who has prepared the Reuters Institute’s recent reports on Peru—told me that in an age of public frustration with an entrenched political establishment, many digital media spaces offer “new faces, new opinions, new ways to approach the problem.” Measuring trust across these new spaces, however, can be hard—and of course, this type of landscape can accelerate the spread of disinformation as well. In a country with dysfunctional political institutions, “what makes the arrival of the social internet liberating is also what makes it dangerous,” Brunella Tipismana wrote last year in an article for the North American Congress on Latin America. “By allowing for a multiplicity of perspectives, technology has both opened up space for underrepresented voices and, simultaneously, deepened the nation’s epistemic crisis.” 

One positive of the digital news sector in Peru is that it has created more space for hard-hitting investigative journalism, which observers say is rare these days in mainstream commercial media. La Encerrona jumped into this field, eventually hiring Cabral to work on stories, like Rolexgate, with a longer timeline than the outlet’s daily news digests. Outlets including Convoca and OjoPúblico do investigative work, too, as does IDL-Reporteros, a dedicated investigative outlet founded in 2009 by the veteran journalist Gustavo Gorriti and associates.

This sector, however, remains relatively small. And it increasingly appears to be under threat. (Last year, Peru dropped thirty-three places in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, to 110th out of 180 countries worldwide.) Romina Mella, the managing editor of IDL-Reporteros, told me that disinformation campaigns targeting the site have grown more brazen in recent years. Protesters linked to a far-right group have shown up at Gorriti’s home and the outlet’s offices, pelting the latter with garbage and worse. Perhaps most concerningly, a prosecutor in Lima recently began investigating Gorriti for supposed bribery, accusing him of complicity with other prosecutors and ordering him to reveal the identities of his sources.

Much of the backlash against IDL-Reporteros, including the case against Gorriti, has stemmed from its leading coverage of the “Car Wash” investigation (or Lava Jato in Portuguese), a region-wide scandal involving corruption allegations, linked to the Brazilian infrastructure conglomerate Odebrecht, that have ensnared a number of leading Peruvian politicians. In 2019, Alan García, a former president, killed himself as authorities moved to arrest him over his alleged role in the scandal; the party of Keiko Fujimori—who is herself set to go on trial on charges linked to Odebrecht—has accused Gorriti of bearing responsibility for García’s death. 

More recently, IDL-Reporteros produced a detailed visual investigation mapping out some of the deaths in the protests, winning major regional awards. La Encerrona also published investigations linked to the protests. But Sifuentes and others told me that such work has not reliably moved the political needle in Peru. Various observers suggest that in a politically and geographically polarized country, some elites were relatively unmoved by deaths that mostly occurred far away, among people of Andean descent. “There’s a hint of racism,” Sifuentes said.

If Rolexgate has cut through, that might also be because it’s easier for Peruvians to understand Boluarte’s direct involvement—and harder for her to deny it. The reaction to the story, while arguably trivial compared with dozens of deaths, might also stand in for broader frustrations with the political class; while reporting this story, I was reminded of Boris Johnson being brought down, more than anything else, by COVID-era partying in his government in the UK—not his most grievous scandal, perhaps, but one that neatly channeled public fury with broader official hypocrisy. (Sifuentes told me that the parallel was an apt one.) Either way, even commercial media in Peru, traditionally more friendly to those in power, has covered Rolexgate—perhaps in part a result of its potential as an entertainment story, Cueva Chacón suggested, but proof nonetheless that it has become impossible to ignore. 

It’s not clear if the story will ultimately bring Boluarte down. Some critics of the country’s political system have described it as a “congressional dictatorship”; public pressure alone might only be enough to fell Boluarte if legislative elites determine that she has outlived her usefulness to them. Still, more than a month after La Encerrona broke the story, that public pressure remains strong. “It’s really going on right now,” Sifuentes told me. “She is in really big trouble.”

Other notable stories:

  • For New York magazine, E. Alex Jung profiled Mehdi Hasan, whose career is entering a new phase following his abrupt departure from MSNBC. “The mysterious, Ziploc-sealed circumstances around his exit led people to speculate that the network had canceled his show for his criticism of Israel and its officials,” Jung reports. “With the winds of gossip and outrage at his back, Hasan, 44, decided to launch his own media company on Substack, Zeteo, joining the growing ecosystem of writers building their fiefdoms on the bones of mainstream media.” Hasan told Jung that he was disappointed that MSNBC canceled his show, but that “being self-employed is gonna be the greatest thing that ever happened to me.” (ICYMI, I profiled Hasan in 2021, when his star was rising at MSNBC.)
  • In other media-business news, Semafor’s Ben Smith went deep on Axel Springer, the German media behemoth, and owner of Politico and Business Insider, that is “navigating the rise of the new global right to mutual benefit.” (Among other nuggets, Smith reports that the Wall Street Journal is a “top acquisition target” for the company.) Elsewhere, reports that the Washington Post is working with Virginia Tech to develop “a generative AI project where readers can get answers to questions, using data taken from the Post’s previous coverage.” And Grist and the Center for Public Integrity are hosting trainings this week on how to cover lead contamination; you can find more details here.
  • And Huw Edwards—a star news anchor at the BBC who was suspended last summer amid a messy, murky scandal linking him to the alleged procurement of explicit photos and sending of inappropriate messages—resigned from the broadcaster. After the allegations became public, Edwards experienced what his wife described as a “serious” mental-health episode and was admitted to the hospital; he has still yet to address the claims publicly. (ICYMI, I wrote about the story as it unfolded at the time.)

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.