A Crowdsourced Website and a Shootout Lead to a Crackdown on Crime

Apr 92012
  • The day after the shooting, a bullet hole through an apartment window was proof of just how dangerous the situation was: A family was sleeping in the apartment at the time.

  • The bullet landed here, in the apartment ceiling, as a family slept nearby.

  • Knight Fellow Jorge Luis Sierra (left) checks his flip cam video at the TVN facilities in Panama City. To his right, an editor prepares a story on the shootout for broadcast.

  • The investigative reporting workshop presenters included (l-r) Axel Rivera, news director for Medcom-Telemetro; Alicia Ortega, SIN vice president; Guido Rodriguez, TVN news director; John Law, acting U.S. ambassador, who inaugurated the workshop; Victor Castillo, investigative reporter; and Flor Ortega, executive director of the Forum of Journalists.

  • The workshop featured Alicia Ortega, an investigative reporter and TV anchor from the Dominican Republic, interviewed here by a TVN reporter.

  • Twelve professional journalists and four students participated in the workshop.

As part of a TV investigative reporting workshop, I was working with 12 Panamanian journalists and journalism students eager to learn how they could use Mi Panama Transparente (MPT) to investigate crime and corruption in their areas. I had planned a demonstration I thought would showcase the possibilities. Little did I know it would involve an exchange of gunfire the participants would catch on tape… and lead to a series of high-profile news reports.

MPT is a crowd-sourced website I developed as part of my Knight International Journalism Fellowship. It uses citizen alerts, sent in by cell phone, text or using an online form, to report crime throughout the region. The information they submit is posted to an online map, so journalists and the general public can easily see what kinds of crimes occur most often, and when and where they take place.

I noticed a report complaining about noise coming from the bars and discos of Bellavista, an old, neglected, middle-class neighborhood in Panama City that has given way to prostitution and drug trafficking. The report mentioned excessive noise coming from establishments lining a three-block section of Calle Uruguay, and said it violated city ordinances that prohibit sound above 50 decibels at night. Citizens reported having levels of more than 90 decibels, sometimes more than 100 inside apartments. After a few visits to the area to confirm the reports, we were ready for the workshop -- and called some of the best reporters in Panama to help train participants and develop their skills in investigative reporting for TV. In addition to the 12 professional trainees, the best journalism students from four Panamanian universities attended the workshop, which took place from March 16-17, 2012.

The participants formed teams that were dispatched to the zone, most of them with flip cameras, smart phones and small cameras. They were assigned to do interviews and take footage. But the real lessons popped up in an unexpected way: While a team of reporters was taking video near a disco, a shooting began and two reporters were caught in the crossfire. Leonardo Machuca and Flor Bocharel, both experienced journalists, witnessed the shooting. As they took cover, Machuca pulled out a flip camera and started to record the scene.

That video was extremely important, not only because the reporter managed to capture the shooting, but also because he was able to record police officers letting two suspects go. We sent the story to our media partners and TVN, the biggest station in Panama, broadcasted it. Three newspapers ran stories in both the online and print versions. We actually produced a follow-up TV segment about an apartment hit by bullets that night. Neighbors were alarmed that armed violence was so close to them.

The impacts were immediate: The Panamanian Secretary of Commerce announced he would revise all operation licenses in Calle Uruguay; the Panama City mayor said authorities would seize sound equipment from discos violating city codes; the Panama municipality organized a meeting the following week to bring together citizens, bar and disco owners, authorities and local representatives to discuss possible alternatives; and the National Police started an internal investigation and deployed 30 more officers to Calle Uruguay.

The citizens who originally sent the report to Mi Panama Transparente said that they made copies of the TV story and attached it to formal letters to authorities to protest the noise from bars and discos. TVN ran the two segments in prime time, giving the Mi Panama Transparente website high-profile coverage. As a result, the TV story about the Calle Uruguay shooting went viral on the Internet and there were many Twitter postings. Several news websites reproduced those stories in their own outlets. But the most important outcome of this experience was the opportunity that Mi Panama Transparente created for the citizens' voices to be heard.