In 2015, 11.5 million documents detailing confidential financial information were anonymously leaked to the German newspaper SüddeutscheZeitung. Known as the Panama Papers, many of these documents implicated national leaders, including Argentina’s president, Marucio Macri. An examination of the Panama Papers, Macri’s involvement and the role of Argentina’s media outlets is being studied by Mariana De Maio.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, together with SüddeutscheZeitung and more than 100 other media associates, spent a year combing through the files and exposed offshore holdings of world political leaders, links to global scandals and details of the hidden financial dealings of fraudsters, drug traffickers, billionaires, celebrities and sports stars. The documents include nearly 40 years of data from a little-known but powerful law firm based in Panama. That firm, Mossack Fonseca, is one of the world’s top creators of shell companies, corporate structures that can be used to hide ownership of assets. Mentioned in the documents was Argentina’s president. Also mentioned were Argentina’s largest media companies. 

De Maio, assistant professor of journalism, interviewed journalists in Argentina who were involved in uncovering the Panama Papers. Argentina’s journalists encountered retribution for their efforts and were questioned more about their work and coverage of the Panama Papers than in all the other Latin American countries. 

“The journalists encountered problems trying to publish their stories because the Argentine president was one of the world leaders named in the papers, yet nothing has happened to him,” De Maio says. “Respected journalists who worked on the Panama Papers were being questioned because they worked at a news outlet that had offshore accounts revealed in the Panama Papers. The [news outlet] did not want them to report about them having an account.”

De Maio adds that one of the challenges in Argentina is that much of the media outlets are owned by one company. Journalists who reported about the Panama Papers worked for Clarín and La Nación. Clarín, the principal newspaper in Argentina, is published by the Grupo Clarín media group. The group is the largest media holding in Argentina, also owning the country’s major cable operator Cablevisión, major commercial broadcast television Canal 13, a number of cable networks and hundreds of radio licenses. 

“Other media have trouble competing against the Clarín Group, and they have trouble reaching the people,” she says. “There are alternative voices, but they are on the Web, so you have to know where to find them. It’s hard to reach the general population. We need diverse media so you have diverse voices so that media can help with the consolidation of democracy. If you don’t have diverse media, it may affect democracy.”

In a connected facet of her research, De Maio also explores social media and newspaper coverage of elections in Argentina. Controlling the nation’s media and the messages reaching the public is important, particularly during national polls.

“In elections like those we’re seeing these days, just being able to convince 1 percent of the voting population can change the results of elections,” she says. “Those minimal effects can be substantial when they can change the results.”