Scholar Spotlight: Pilar Velasco

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Pilar Velasco is a Spanish journalist currently working at Cadena SER (Prisa Group), the radio network leader in Spain. Specializing in investigative and data journalism, she has exposed political and economic malpractices in Spain and uncovered high profile international corruption cases. Pilar is the author of two books, one about social change in Spain; and another one about the rise of indignados (Occupy) movement, both of which have been translated into several languages. She is a member of the Strategy Group ‘A Soul of Europe’, a European Union initiative to strengthen and connect communities through different frames of discussion. Pilar also teaches investigative journalism in Madrid and presents at conferences across Europe and Latin America. She is also the Founder and a Board Member of the Spanish Association of Investigative Journalists (2017) with the aim of promoting cross-border investigative journalism and reinforcing freedom of expression.

Could you tell me a bit about what your current work involves and what brings you to yale?

I started investigative journalism nearly fifteen years ago and I am currently working at Cadena SER, the leading radio network in Spain. The Yale World Fellows Program came at the best moment of my career and the best moment in terms of how the world is changing. I’ve been working since 2004, and I thought, well, everything is getting so complex, let´s try to understand why and how the world is changing so deeply, let´s reflect about crucial questions; how people are being impacted by new realities, how society is getting polarized, what kind of conversations we are generating, how are we going to make the internet work for society, how to release quality and useful information, what should be the role of the press as a public service and Forth State. So, it was the best moment in two ways: to understand better the complexity of this moment in history and to rethink and reset. And Yale is the best place for that. I’m a professor too in Spain and I always tell my students that in journalism you need to be learning all the time. We have to train ourselves with new technologies, knowledge and improved skills. Here at Yale there are conversations going on all the time and it is an open place to have discussions that you maybe cannot have in your normal, daily life. Is a good environment to review your work, open your mind to learn new features again, and build new networks. There are so many new things to reflect about as a journalist. It’s a gift to be able to do it. 

I want to zoom in a bit on your work in journalism. I know you’ve written a lot exposing the unlawful and unethical activities of the powerful. What is your favorite investigative piece you’ve worked on, whether in that realm or some other area? 

That is such a difficult question for someone who has been working in investigative journalism for so long! There is one investigative piece that I liked in particular. I usually work on cases that concern the intersection between corruption and politics. But this piece was a completely different thing. It concerned an orphanage in Equatorial Guinea and an NGO in Barcelona. This NGO was bringing children from this orphanage and families were adopting them. This orphanage in Equatorial Guinea was essentially selling these children to the NGO in Barcelona and in Barcelona they were giving the children to other families. But these children were not orphans. In Equatorial Guinea, families would leave their children at the orphanage when they had no resources to feed two or three children and would come back later for them, in months or some years. When they would come back, the children were gone. After the investigation, the government of Spain ended its adoption agreement with Guinea and all the cases were reviewed.

That was a case that I really liked. And I told myself afterwards that I would do more social, human cases, that impact people so much. But corruption and economic cases also have a direct impact on economies, institutions and democracies and therefore on people´s lives. 

If I had to choose another case, for many years I investigated the former governor of Madrid for illegal bribes and contract supplies taken from the public water company in Spain. This case represents the fact that every local case can turn easily into a global case. When there are big public companies, political parties, governors of any community involved, and you have proof that money is going out in bribes, it is a global issue. It was a case that we started working on in local neighborhoods in Madrid and finally we made a network in Colombia, where the investigation has been opened now, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Haiti, like a dozen countries. The former governor of Madrid finally went to jail. But we built a case over many years from local to local, working locally in Madrid and in communities in Colombia and other countries in Latin America. Sometimes you have to work bottom-up, rather than top-bottom. When an investigation is so closed, and nobody wants to talk, you have to start from another place. And the perfect place to start here was from the local communities affected by the illegal contracts. 

What would you say is your favorite aspect of your work? And what would you consider the most challenging? 

Investigative journalism is changing now as everything else. And what I really like is working on the pattern. Normally, in a big case, if an issue is big enough to warrant an investigation, that means that a system dysfunction has been normalized – by the institutions, society, or both. If not, it is impossible to hide it. When something happens on a large scale, it is because there are so many institutions allowing it to happen. Working on that and putting the facts on the table and exposing the institutions that are covering it, unveiling these patterns, is something I really care about. If you want to investigate the illegal trafficking of women between Europe and Mexico, for instance, you might start reporting in Madrid, or in Mexico City or maybe investigate companies that are hiding the money or the exploiters. Either way, look for the big business that is allowing that. Every crime on a large scale is supported by a large-scale business or power.

The most challenging thing is gathering all the resources and the time to pursue an investigation. And it is also challenging sometimes to get the media interested in the issue. As a journalist you have to convince your staff about why they should invest money and time on a story.  

Have you ever broken a story on an issue you considered really important but that didn’t get the response or reception you wanted? 

That happens a lot. You just keep working. It happens a lot because sometimes issues just don’t get attention. People have their own lives. And you don’t always have a big story with the necessary components to get the attention of the people. But you keep working and, usually, you find something that makes everything understandable and your story starts again. Stories are not linear. Stories are living. You might start investigating at one point, and pick it up later and take it to another place. 

By way of example, consider the huge investigation about taxes and Trump by the New York Times. In the investigative field, we’ve discussed this story — worked on for a year and a half by three of the best journalists at the New York Times — which if you go to the street maybe some people have read about it and some haven’t. But maybe later, another link turns to a piece of breaking news that makes dubious Trump tax schemes relevant again. 

You’re also involved with this strategy group called “A Soul of Europe.” Could you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with that group and what it does? 

When I got involved, it was the beginning of the financial crisis in Europe, and in Spain. The big crisis had started and I wrote my second book, about the rise of the Indignados Movement — [the anti-austerity movement] — in Spain. So, they reached out to me after the publication of the book, and I decided I could also put my job towards this global topic in Europe. The media plays an important role in the process of European integration, in terms of bringing Europe to the citizens and making it more understandable. We face Europe as an economic space, when we should understand it also as a cultural space. Culture is everything, it is how we understand and relate to each other.  In our currently polarized context, with the far-right strenghtening and democracies weakening, this issue is more important than ever in Europe. The aim of “A Soul for Europe” — promoted by the European Comission — is to implement concrete steps and conduct projects to ensure that Europe makes greater and better use of its cultural assets.

You are also a co-founder of the Spanish Association of Investigative Journalists. What were your motivations for starting that project? 

Networks are so important. We shouldn’t work isolated and in silence. We created this organization to represent investigative and data journalism, to protect journalists, to boost visualization, data collaborations and so on. In journalism you need a strong network abroad and we are focused on building connections with other countries and within our country as well. Spain is the bridge between Latin America and Europe. If you consider the Panama Papers investigation, you need to go through Spain. The same applies to the Football Leaks investigation. And almost any large-scale crime investigation. Everything is really well connected, so we have to be connected as well. And that is one of so many reasons.

Coming back to Yale and your time here. You’re coming from the field and now you’re in a more academic environment. How has the transition been for you? 

It’s so exciting because I’m going back to the beginning. You need to deeply understand how the world works to report about it. This program is helping me do that. It gives me the time to share different visions with numerous high profile profesional fellows from different backgrounds. In our regular lives we don’t have the time to hear all those inputs, to talk to colleagues from Africa, Asia, Russia, Latin America and the United States. It’s great to see all these different thoughts which connect in sort of the common problems, which I’m interested in. I’m interested in what these common problems are that we’re facing, what the challenges of democracy are in different countries, and how we can work on these issues and also explain them to the audience. [The World Fellows] are all in different points of this chain: some of them make the policy, some talk to the audiences, some of them run countries! So it’s a really good network to reflect on common challenges, especially with the professors here. This is the best place to ask questions openly. And there are so many different personalities coming to this campus — ambassadors, economists, politicians, bright minds in philosophy, science and so on. When else do you have all of this in the same place. This is the only place from which I don’t have to travel! 

What specifically have you been up to in terms of organizing and/or participating in events? 

I’m organizing events because I think that journalism matters now more than ever. I’ve been reflecting a lot about journalism as a public service and as a fourth [pillar of] state. Journalism is a profession where we have so much responsibility and its important to merge debates about journalism with other topics. So I’m trying to discuss this debate here, and have conversations about the role of the free press, and investigative journalism and its challenges. 

And what about future plans? Are you planning to return to the world of journalism after this semester? 

After completing the World Fellows program, I started working as a visiting fellow at the MacMillan Center, affiliated with CLAIS, and also as a fellow in the Law School´s Information Society Project. Once I finish this semester, I’m going to keep working in Journalism. This community here gives you so much and also gives you renewed strength. It reinforces your commitment with society and reminds you of the good things.


Interviewed by Zainab Hamid, Timothy Dwight College, Class of 2019