Global Girl: Hold governments accountable says Spain’s top investigative journo
Pilar Velasco, a recent Yale World Fellow, is an investigative journalist currently working at Cadena SER Prisa Group, the leading radio network in Spain. Specializing in data journalism, she has exposed political and economic malpractices in high profile international cases — revealing crimes of the powerful against the public interest. She collaborates with several digital media platforms and radio/TV stations in Europe and Latin America.
Pilar has authored two books, one about the new generation after Spain’s democratic transition; and the other about the rise of the Indignados Movement. She has also published in Germany, writing about the challenges of European democracy.
Pilar is a leader and educator in her field as co-founder of the Spanish Association of Investigative Journalists. I speak with her for the Global Girl series on SheThePeople.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a Spanish journalist and author, and focus on unveiling hidden cases of abuse of power, and stories that affect people and communities in order to make information useful to the public.
In one way or another, telling a story, or revealing an irregularity, has a positive impact on a given community. And witnessing that impact gives you the strength to move forward and enjoy a profession which is useful for others.
You are an investigative journalist who has exposed major corruption in Spain. How did you choose this path for your career?
I have chosen to work on these topics since the very beginning of my career, around 2001. I found investigative journalism to be the core of journalism as a public service. One of its meaningful goals is to hold the powers-that-be accountable, and investigative journalism is pretty much about that: to understand how certain power and social dynamics work, and to be able to expose and explain them in a way that is useful for people.
You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
In one way or another, telling a story, or revealing an irregularity, has a positive impact on a given community. And witnessing that impact gives you the strength to move forward and enjoy a profession which is useful for others. Every story has consequences when released, and that’s so powerful and inspiring. I remember a case I worked in, a plot of unlawful adoptions of children from a Guinea Bissau’s orphanage to Europe. After the reporting, the adoption agreement between Spain and Guinea was closed, so poor families from Guinea stopped losing their children in irregular adoptions. Also, how reporting corruption in Madrid and Valencia (Spain) encouraged local communities to denounce their cases publicly. Once these stories are published, you can see the direct effect on making unfair laws or abuses of power stop. These experiences help you to move forward and trust your work. If you understand journalism as a public service, then providing useful information to communities, and holding power accountable drive your work every day.
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What excites you when you wake up every morning?
It ́s true that every morning I find my work exciting since I started almost 15 years ago. All parts of the process of a research story are exciting: talking to different people, doing the research, finding the right sources, the facts, and the patterns in which something irregular is happening. To think about how your story affects a certain community, to choose the right narrative to tell a story, to think about how a story fits into the news cycle and daily events, to develop an engagement strategy in order to reach different audiences and open a conversation with the public. The whole process is a challenge that must succeed with a story that affects people and is useful to be told.
Going back to my topic, accountability is stories that impact power. Corruption is the opposite of democracy, so this idea works as a driving motto that goes with me every day, and it is very stimulating.
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
Having chosen to unveil corruption in Spain since the very beginning of my career (2004) was such an important decision. Important because years later, corruption in Spain had a tremendous impact on people’s lives and on the democratic development of the country.
Some examples: Reporting illegal political activities in Madrid, its impact on local democracy, on the culture and the future of the region, was a constant effort that paid off over the years. Uncovering so many ‘isolated cases’ finally revealed a particular way of governing; a mechanism that went beyond Madrid, and affected the highest institutions in Spain. This constant effort of reporting these cases paid off over the years.
If you understand journalism as a public service, then providing useful information to communities, and holding power accountable drive your work every day.
A relevant example was the abuse of power of the former governor of Madrid, the irregularities in the water supply public contracts, and how these illegal practices under his administration were highly impacting local communities in Spain and Latin America. Also, facing the former governor of Madrid at the court turned into a good example of how “just” a reporter can uncover large cases and resist pressures no matter how high up they come from.
Another example was the first book I wrote, Jóvenes, aunque sobradamente cabreados (Young and pissed: A Youth Rebellion and the 14-M) about the political and social awakening of young Spaniards during 1996-2004. Through dozens of interviews, this book attempted to give voice to a generation and their role in a country (Spain) with a young democracy.
What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
As a journalist, a type of challenge I have faced is realizing how to choose a good story while understanding how a particular fact may impact people’s lives. Other challenges are related to pressures, and how to stop them from ending your story. In a country like Spain, where corruption cases have affected the highest institutions, pressures can come from many places. I have been sued a few times, and charged with secrecy disclosure crimes. Other times the difficulties to publish come from within your own company. How to deal with this? Perseverance, determination, patience and sometimes a little creativity to design strategies that allow you to take your story to the end.
How do you manage self care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
The importance of self-care is something I have learned over time. Even if I have a busy schedule, and considering that so many activities I like to do in my free time are related to my work, I try to have a couple of hours a day for myself. It is a time that I use to write to friends that I care about, to do some exercise, call my family, take care of the house, read something different from work: ‘Little’ things that help me to be self-conscious of my well being and my environment.
Even if I have a busy schedule, and considering that so many activities I like to do in my free time are related to my work, I try to have a couple of hours a day for myself.
Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
Yes, I do. Everything we do has a local impact on global connections, and I like to think in that way. In addition, I love to meet people and different cultures, create and boost networks and supporting connections, which are increasingly necessary.
What is the advice you would give your 16-year-old self?
Hold your voice, defend your ideas, think big, dare to carry out your projects, do not let them limit you because of your age, your gender, or because of where you come from. Think that you can do it and prepare yourself generously for it.
What are the three values you think are most important for a global leader?
Perseverance in work, personal integrity, and empathy with others.
What’s next for Pilar Velasco?
I see myself working in global projects with a strong local impact. I have just finished a year reflecting about global challenges, world order, and new technological trends and their impact on people’s lives, among other topics. I have had the privilege of being at Yale University reflecting and writing about these topics, sharing ideas and experiences with amazing colleagues, and now I want to apply this new energy and knowledge to my work and to other collective projects.