Graduate student was part of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation


In 2016, the last thing on Alberto Araujo’s mind was being part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation. The first thing on his mind was trying to get out of his home country of Ecuador.

Araujo moved to the United States and enrolled in the master’s program at the J-School in 2016 after he was sued by the Ecuadoran government and was harassed after writing a series of stories that were published as part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Panama Papers investigation.

Araujo started working as a journalist in Ecuador starting in 2006, first at a radio station and then at newspapers El Universo and El Comercio. At El Comercio, his beat was the energy sector, and in 2015, he was investigating $1 billion in cost overruns for a new hydroelectric plant being built by the government. While working one weekend and monitoring the state-run television program, Araujo was surprised to hear the Ecuadoran president say that the hydroelectric plant would cost $3 billion -- that was $1 billion over the original cost.

Araujo pressed the government about the extra $1 billion, which officials downplayed, saying the new costs were for taxes and infrastructure for residents affected by the new plants. Unsatisfied with the explanation, Araujo kept digging for details. He interviewed experts who strongly disputed the government’s figures, even questioning how the plant could cost $2 billion in the first place.

After Araujo’s story was published, Ecuador’s vice president, appearing on the weekly state-sponsored TV program, attacked Araujo, calling him biased and corrupt. And then the government sued Araujo and El Comercio.

"So they said, ‘OK, we got you,’” Araujo said. “They sent me a letter saying they were going to sue me."

A communications court ruled in favor of the government, and the judgment allowed the government to print a rebuttal to Araujo’s reporting in El Commercio. Araujo felt as if he had a target on his back. Other reporters were also being sued by the government, and Araujo wondered whether it was safe to be a journalist in his country.

That’s when he and his family made the decision to leave. He began applying to journalism graduate programs in the United States. While he was waiting word about whether he would be accepted, Araujo’s editor approached him about a new project. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists was looking for reporters for a global investigation, one that Araujo later would learn was the Panama Papers, an investigation involving hundreds of journalists worldwide that exposed a global system of crime and corruption.

"He told me, 'OK, this is a huge investigation. It is conducted from the United States. We have a lot of documents, so I want you in this investigation,’" Araujo said.

Initially, Araujo said he was hesitant.

"At the beginning, I said no, I don't want to get involved in these investigations again,” Araujo said, “because I have this background, these issues with the government."

He relented and started investigating a Chinese company that was building another hydroelectric plant in Ecuador. Araujo discovered money that was supposedly being paid to consultants, however, those consultants did not exist.

"In March or April 2016, all these media published the Panama Papers, and at that time I didn't know that I was involved in this investigation," Araujo said.

After the Panama Papers were published, Araujo said he and other Ecuadoran journalists who were part of the investigation were targeted by the government. On Twitter, the Ecuadoran president called them out by name and accused them of trying to harm the country. Their photos were shown on government television and posted on its website, and Araujo said he was being harassed through his Twitter account.

Instead of conducting an investigation into the corruption that was uncovered, government officials summoned the journalists to testify before congress, Araujo said.

Because of the harassment, Araujo was concerned about what might happen to his family. Were they being followed? Was it safe for them to even go to the mall?

“We felt totally unsafe,” Araujo said.

A few days before the journalists were to testify, a huge earthquake devastated Ecuador, killing hundreds. The government, focusing on the disaster, turned its attention to earthquake relief and put the questioning on hold. A few weeks later, the ICIJ published all of the documents related to the investigation, and because the huge data dump – 11 million documents – was now online, the government canceled the inquiry.

Shortly after Araujo moved to the United States, the Panama Papers investigation was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. Araujo said he is proud of work he did, and because of the investigation, the Ecuadoran vice president was convicted of bribery, and the attorney general resigned.

"I'm happy that my name is there and that I can put that in my resume," Araujo said.

His family now feels safe here, and Araujo is a graduate teaching assistant and is researching newspaper business models for his thesis. He is working with Professor Jimmy Gentry to build case studies of the most profitable public newspaper companies. He is  scheduled to graduate in the spring. He has a job offer back in Ecuador and is applying for a scholarship in England. He also plans to apply to doctoral programs. For now, though, he said he feels fortunate to be right where he is.

"One of my friends told me I'm living the dream," Araujo said.

-- Julie Adam