Investigative journalism in Latin America today

Magdalena Saldana and Silvio Waisbord

This chapter examines the state of investigative journalism in Latin America. The focus is on four major trends: the rise of collaborative forms of regional and global reporting, the consolidation of vibrant digital news sites that scrutinise political and economic power in relation to a range of social issues (e.g. human rights, womens rights, environmental issues), the use of data journalism techniques, and the rise of fact checkers to debunk misinformation in the region. All together, these novel forms open opportunities for critical news and complement the limited interest in investigative work among traditional news organisations. These trends are particularly significant in the context of old and new challenges for in-depth, hard-hitting journalism — from legal and physical attacks to digital harassment of reporters perpetrated by states, parastate actors, and citizens.

Background

Understanding the current state of investigative journalism in Latin America demands a consideration of unprecedented changes in news ecologies in the past two decades. Just as in other regions of the world, news industries, journalistic practice, and information flows have been transformed. News industries and journalism are in a vulnerable situation. News companies have been losing advertising revenue to global digital platforms. Legacy news media struggle to compete for audience attention with Google and Facebook. Shifts in press economies and the painful transition to digital news have deepened labour precarity amid massive job losses (Waisbord, 2019).

Amid these conditions, investigative journalism is a vibrant, important yet limited aspect of the Latin American news landscape. Only a small number of national news organisations consistently offer investigative stories aimed at revealing power abuses and illegal actions. Investigative journalism remains, especially at the local level, a rarity, even though press exposés oftentimes gain wide attention, especially when they uncover wrongdoing at the highest level of political, economic, and cultural power. Out of hundreds of legacy and digital news companies and websites, a handful of news organisations in each

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN LATIN AMERICA TODAY country in the region consistently investigate corruption and produce explosive stories.

Immediately after the return of democratic rule in the 1980s and 1990s, investigative journalism emerged vigorous. As a journalistic practice primarily anchored in commercial news organisations in countries with a spotty record of democratic rights and the rule of law, it has been torn between contradictory forces. Investigative reporting reflected the commitment of journalists and news organisations to holding power accountable by exposing many forms of power abuses: corruption, wrongdoing, cover-ups, collusion. It sparked legislative and judicial investigations that yielded limited yet significant forms of accountability. It contributed to processes that culminated in the resignation of powerful politicians, military officers, and corporate executives.

Investigative journalism was, nevertheless, hamstrung by powerful political and economic forces, both at the level of the state and media corporations more interested in pursuing narrow' industrial interests than in truth-telling. It was oftentimes too dependent on leaks from political and economic elites as well as intelligence services. It was also bound by editorial and partisan allegiances of individual reporters and news organisations. Exposés resulted from complex, multi-layered political dynamics, including the politics of sources, rather than only journalisms concern with serving the public good.

These tensions have continued in recent times. News organisations, particularly legacy media companies, have tried to balance economic, ideological, and partisan commitments with investigative journalism. News organisations have continued to play critical roles amid political battles, especially in contexts of polarised politics in much of the region. Whereas some have vigorously confronted administrations with hard-hitting exposés, others opted to champion official causes. Investigative journalism has often been aligned with the editorial positions and corporate calculations of news organisations. Oftentimes, the threat of economic punishment by governments and corporations discouraged news organisations from publishing critical investigations of political and economic powers.

In this context, legacy news organisations have produced numerous investigations that revealed wrongdoing and corruption in government, corporations, religious institutions, and other sectors of society. Leading news organisations and journalists participated in the regional and global networks that broke the biggest stories in the past decade, such as the Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers, Brazil’s Lava Jato, Argentina’s Los cuadernos de la corrupción, Mexico’s Peña Nieto’s Casa Blanca, and Colombia’s Las Chuzadas. Without going into the specifics, all investigations revealed the collusion of political and corporate actors in various forms of wrongdoing for personal benefit. In some cases, corporations delivered paybacks to public officials in exchange for government contracts. In other cases, government officials and wealthy individuals collaborated in setting up offshore financial networks to avoid taxes. Other investigations revealed the action of rogue intelligence services spying on politicians, reporters, and activists with the knowledge and support of prominent politicians.

Collaborations in investigative projects

Collaborative journalism is “a cooperative arrangement (formal or informal) between two or more news and information organisations, which aims to supplement each organisation’s resources and maximize the impact of the content produced” (Stonbely, 2017; p. 14). The Panama Papers and the Paradise Papers are probably the best examples of recent collaborative, investigative projects conducted by journalists from all over the world. Through the analysis of millions of leaked files, both investigations revealed financial dealings of global prominent figures who sheltered their wealth in secretive tax havens.

Both the Panama and the Paradise Papers demonstrate a paradigm shift where exclusivity and immediacy are replaced by a culture of information sharing and “slow” journalism. Global investigations like these cases cannot be conducted by a single news organisation or small team of reporters. Instead, news outlets collaborated in these projects in unprecedented ways. During the Panama Papers investigation, 96 journalists from 15 countries in Latin America were part of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists team that reviewed 11.5 million records from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, one of the world’s top creators of shell companies used to hide ownership of assets. Similarly, 60 journalists from 13 Latin American countries were involved in the management, reporting, and editing of the Paradise Papers, analyzing massive volumes of documents leaked from offshore law firm Appleby.

Besides the Panama and the Paradise Papers, other examples show that Latin American news organisations have embraced the potential of collaborative work. In 2016, the Salvadoran site El Faro worked in conjunction with the New York Times to expose violent gangs in El Salvador. In 2017, El Faro worked with Univision to produce a multimedia report about the migrant crisis in Central America. In both cases, the information was published simultaneously in English and Spanish to reach wider audiences. In the 2018 Excellence in Journalism Awards by the Inter American Press Association, 9 out of 13 award categories were given to collaborative teams (Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa, 2018). The collaborative project “Investiga Lava Jato”, conducted by reporters from 15 countries in Latin America and Africa, obtained the 2018 Excellence in Journalism Award in the Data Journalism category.

Recent studies about collaborative journalism in the region found that collaborations are formed to enhance the impact of investigative projects, reach larger audiences, and yield comprehensive coverage (Cueva Chacon and Saldana, 2019). Given that anti-press violence and limited support within legacy news organisations are the most common constraints for investigative reporters in Latin America (Saldana and Mourao, 2018), working in conjunction with other news organisations - especially outlets in other countries - helps news organisations to reach the public even if the stories are shut down by political authorities or economic pressures. Yet collaborative work is not without drawbacks. Investigative teams struggle to meet deadlines, make good use of resources, and distribute labour and responsibilities properly when working with teams from other news outlets. Successful collaborations require editorial agreements early on in the project, as well as trust and good intentions among partners (Stonbely, 2017).

Investigative journalism in digital native sites

Unquestionably, the coming of digital sites that prominently feature investigative stories has been a major development in Latin America in the past decade (Salaverria et al., 2019). Virtually every country in the region displays a small number of sites that exemplify this trend. These sites generally publish stories that are rigorous with facts, expose wrongdoing by powerful actors, put attention on urgent social problems and inequalities, bring out multileveled stories that include citizens’ voices, and incorporate cutting-edge reporting techniques.

An incomplete list of these sites includes the following cases. Mexico’s Dromó-manos has documented problems such as violence, drug trafficking, and migration. It has used transmedia reporting and citizens’ contributions to produce vivid, complex stories. It has partnered with civil society organisations to conduct policy advocacy to address those social problems. Mexico’s Animal Politico is widely known for its stellar reporting on social inequality, political corruption, migration, social programs, and human rights violations. In Venezuela, Runrtm.es began as a Twitter account and blog in 2009, and it became an innovative investigative journalism site that works on exposing political wrongdoing in the country. Guatemala’s Nómada and Plaza Pública produced several exposés that revealed collusion between the government and larger corporations in relation to a range of illicit behaviours, including tax evasion, fraud, and illegal campaign financing. They have offered in-depth coverage of sexual abuses and femicides implicating powerful actors, as well as the challenges of socially marginalised populations such as indigenous groups, LGBTIA, migrants, and women. Chile’s Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIPER. for the initials in Spanish) has exposed political corruption in the country and examined critical issues related to government and public policy. Launched in 2007, CIPER. has made its goal to promote transparency and freedom of information. Colombia’s Cuestión Pública and La Silla Vacia have regularly investigated government wrongdoing, shady dealings between politicians and corporations, and illegal public contracts. Paraguay’s El Surti has featured fascinating, close-up investigations of the country’s chronic problems: corruption, environmental degradation, and illegal economy. Also, it has reported on sexual violence, reproductive rights, and sexual rights. In Brazil, a host of news organisations, such as Brasil de Fato, Agenda Pública, and The Intercept Brasil, have frequently published investigations on government and corporate corruption, put the spotlight on social inequalities and human rights, and reported on citizens’ struggles against power. Other investigative news sites include Peru’s IDL, Convoca, and Ojo Público; Venezuela’s Efecto Cocuyo; and Mexico’s Quinto Elemento Lab, which have uncovered transnational networks of corruption involving powerful corporations and governments.

What are the distinctive aspects of these investigative sites? Compared to legacy news organisations, these sites have developed a novel, hybrid funding model that relies on philanthropic funding (mostly from international donors), subscriptions, and service provision - consulting, event organisation, data analysis (Requejo-Alemán and Lugo-Ocando, 2014). Such a funding model has allowed them to foreground investigative reporting, focus on public issues, and keep traditional public and private advertisers at a prudent distance. Equally important is the fact that they have become models of quality investigative reporting.

For instance, the Salvadoran site El Faro has become a sustainable project after years of not making any profit. According to the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, El Faro has four income channels: donations from international organisations (such as Open Society Foundations), advertising revenue, an annual crowdfunding campaign (#ExcavaciónCiudadana) where readers economically contribute to help sustain the project, and the sale of content to other news organisations (Nafria, 2018). Mexico’s Animal Politico, in contrast, depends on advertising to a larger extent than El Faro, but it uses its food vertical Animal Gourmet to sell ads and avoid government advertising. It also receives funding from consultancy, contributions from organisations such as Open Society Foundations and the Ford Foundation and crowdfunding campaigns (López Linares, 2018). A different case is Brazilian news site JOTA — which covers judicial issues — where it implemented an “a la carte service” for readers to cherry-pick products and services according to their needs: subscriptions, specialised newsletters, alert services, press clippings, and so on (Nafria, 2017).

The irruption of data journalism

The generation of high volumes of information (so-called big data) in today’s digital environment has contributed to the rise of data journalism as a tool for investigative reporting and storytelling. News organisations are increasingly demanding professionals with expertise in data analysis, visualisation tools, and statistics and mathematical skills. Many of the collaborative projects described earlier in this chapter applied data-analysis techniques or were conceived as data-driven projects. Moreover, the ability to analyze information collaboratively relies on the possibility of conducting data analysis in quantitative and replicable ways.

Research on data journalism conducted by teams at the New York Times and Washington Post indicates day-to-day data reporting in these outlets is neither transparent nor interactive, relies primarily on institutional sources (especially government sources), and offers little original data collection, which are supposed to be relevant features of data-journalism pieces (Zamith, 2019). In contrast, studies analysing data journalism in Latin America suggest this type of reporting is producing high-quality pieces and tracking more attention from the audience. Since the inaugural edition of the Data Journalism Awards in 2012 - a global event organised by the Global Editors Network — Latin American news organisations have obtained prizes at this competition every year. Transparency laws that guarantee access to official information in most of Latin American countries, in addition to the media’s increasing demand for public information, are contributing to the development of data reporting for investigative journalism in the region (Palomo, Teruel, and Blanco-Castilla, 2019).

One of the most remarkable examples of data reporting in the region is La Nación Data, a project developed by Argentine newspaper La Nación, which uses data to tell stories and expand the use of data to activate demand for public information. It has become a major data journalism organisation in Latin America and has received a significant number of journalistic awards. While many news outlets are laying journalists off to reduce costs, La Nación has invested in a data journalism unit that has become “a data journalism powerhouse” in the region, according to NiemabLab (Mazotte, 2017).

Another example of the importance of data journalism in Latin America is the Manual de Periodismo de Datos Iberoamericano, an online, open-access handbook documenting the state of Ibero-American data reporting. Led by Chilean journalists Felipe Perry and Miguel Paz (2015), academics and practitioners from 16 countries (including Portugal and Spain) wrote entries for the handbook, covering topics such as information access, data routines, best practices, and digital tools.

Yet data reporting through computer-aided techniques has become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, data journalism is said to be a way to achieve a more systematic, accurate, and trustworthy journalism practice. On the other hand, organisations conducting data journalism are mostly elite news outlets, while the popular ‘tabloid’journalism has not engaged with this practice. As such, “a new technologically adept and data-informed elite class might be on the rise, with important implications for democratic processes in advanced societies” (Felle, 2016; p. 85).

Despite universities increasingly including data journalism courses in their curriculum, it is still not common to find statistics courses in journalism programs (Nguyen and Lugo-Ocando, 2016). Undoubtedly, digital developments have brought benefits to investigative journalism in Latin America, but there is opportunity for growth in many aspects of the matter.

Fact-checkers to fight misinformation

Fake news denotes “news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers” (Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017; p. 213). The so-called fake news became a buzzword during the 2016 US presidential election, when false political information was shared more frequently than correct, verifiable information (Silverman, 2016). Though fake news is not rare in the history of journalism, the current news media environment has shifted to digital and social media environments, where false information can spread at a faster rate, reaching wider audiences. Yet misinformation does not always come from false news stories or poor reporting — politicians and public figures can also mislead citizens through false claims or inaccurate statements. This is worrisome, as misinformation has the potential to become a real threat to democracy by affecting what people believe and how they make political decisions.

The spread of unverified information, rumours, and conspiracies has been a concern raised during several elections across the region, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, and Venezuela. In 2017, fake stories about several presidential candidates in Chile were spread on Facebook. Similarly, during the 2018 presidential election in Brazil, lies and rumours flood social media (particularly WhatsApp) to delegitimise traditional news outlets (Noel, 2009). In this context, Latin American countries have seen the emergence of factchecking organisations where reporters and researchers work together to verify statements by public figures and debunk fake news, especially on social media.

The 2019 Duke Reporters’ Lab identified 188 fact-checking organisations around the world, 39 more than what they counted in 2018 (Stencel, 2019). Latin America has not reached the numbers observed in North America and Europe, and yet, every year the number of fact checkers in the region increases substantially. Though this type of project usually emerges during election periods to verify candidates’ claims, many outlets also work on debunking viral hoaxes and other forms of online misinformation. For instance, El Polígrafo (Chilean newspaper El Mercurio’s fact-checking unit) verifies information every week, alternating between statements from political figures and rumours spread on platforms such as Facebook or WhatsApp.

Many of the fact-checking projects in the region belong to news organisations that also conduct investigative journalism: El Sabueso, from Mexico’s Animal Politico; Detector de Mentiras, from Colombia’s La Silla Vacía; Truco, from Brazil’s Agenda Pública; ConPruebas, from Guatemala’s Plaza Pública; or Ojo Biónico, from Peril’s Ojo Público. By rating information from “true” to “false” (or even “ridiculous” in some cases), these websites contribute to improve the public debate while also educating audiences in data and media literacy.

But the pioneering case of Latin American fact-checking is Chequeado, an Argentina-based organisation launched in 2010. Inspired by US site FactCh-eck.org, Chequeado verifies statements of politicians and public figures and also trains journalists from other news organisations to conduct fact checking. Since

2014, Chequeado has organised the Latani Chequea conference, an event where reporters and editors from several countries discuss experiences and strategies to improve fact checking in the region.

Unlike the United States, where most of the fact-checking initiatives are associated with established media companies, Latin American fact checkers are more independent from traditional news companies. Half of them are not part of a large news outlet but work as a standalone website, belong to a non-profit organisation, are tied to independent news websites, or are affiliated with academic institutions. Such conditions are important for them to show new forms of practicing quality reporting.

Obstacles and threats

The healthy situation of investigative journalism is remarkable, considering the persistence of formidable obstacles. Obstacles are not particularly related to journalists’ beliefs about the importance of watchdog reporting or training opportunities; instead, they are grounded in a range of political and economic structures and dynamics that limit opportunities for in-depth examination and denunciation of wrongdoing.

One set of obstacles is the worsening of political conditions for investigative journalism, particularly in countries where elected governments evolved into authoritarian regimes, like Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro in the past decade. Reporters and news organisations that published exposés about human rights abuses and illegal activities by prominent government officials have suffered repression. Many reporters who authored critical investigations were thrown in jail without due process by the governments.

Elsewhere in the region, anti-press violence remains a critical deterrent. In a region with the highest rates of violence in the world, it is not uncommon that investigative reporters are targets of attacks, especially those covering illegal activities by intelligence and police services, human rights abuses by death squads, and drug trafficking. Investigative reporters outside metropolitan areas are particularly vulnerable to attacks, especially in countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico that annually record the highest numbers of anti-press violence.

Governments and illegal actors have been responsible. The state has often tried to squash critical reporting through verbal warnings, legal actions, physical violence, and direct pressure on news organisations and reporters. Frequently, the police and armed forces in collusion with politicians have threatened reporters and been responsible for the killing of journalists. Para-state actors such as drug traffickers and gangs, too, have threatened and murdered reporters. High levels of anti-press violence have continued amid impunity. Mechanisms to report attacks and protect reporters in Colombia and Mexico, the countries with the highest levels of anti-press violence in the past decades, have not been as efficient as they need to be.

Equally worrisome is the ubiquity of online harassment of investigative reporters. Not surprisingly, investigative reporters have been prime targets of online harassment, especially after stories get massive coverage and social media presence. Amid political polarisation, journalists publicly identified with ideological and political causes have experienced digital attacks by governments, armies of trolls, and ordinary citizens. Female reporters have been a common target of intimidations and attacks, including bullying, insults, doxing, stalking, and defamation (Lanza, 2018).

Another obstacle to investigative reporting is the uneven and arbitrary application of freedom of information legislation. Certainly, important progress has been made in this area with the passing of legislation granting access to public information in the past decades throughout the region. However, the persistence of several problems limits reporters’ ability to scrutinise governments and other actors: weak traditions of compiling and managing public records, poor recordkeeping, insufficient staff and funds for government offices responsible for attending public requests for information, and erratic and unaccountable decisions in responding to petitions.

Finally, worsening work conditions negatively affect investigative reporting. By definition, investigative stories demand time and resources, which are both scarce for vast numbers of reporters. Holding two or more jobs isn’t unusual, especially for reporters who live and work outside large metropolitan areas where salaries are considerably lower. Spending a substantial amount of time digging up facts, interviewing sources, analyzing documents, and producing stories seems a luxury.

Why does investigative journalism matter?

An important issue to consider is the consequences of investigative journalism. Why does it matter? What difference does it make, especially when reporters continue to face significant obstacles and dangers? How do we understand the unique contributions of careful, fact-grounded, inquisitive reporting that reveals wrongdoing when groundless opinions massively circulate in the Internet and public attention is constantly pulled by myriad forms of content? Why are investigative stories, that generally take considerable time and resources and oftentimes quickly vanish in the digital atmosphere, important? Do they increase public knowledge and democratic accountability? These questions are particularly relevant in today’s multileveled and noisy information ecologies, packed with all kinds of news, misinformation, rumours, spin and propaganda, and rapidly changing news cycles.

In the past, when journalism held a dominant position in public communication, understanding the importance of investigative journalism seemed straightforward. It was rarely disputed that investigative reporting made important contributions to the public good: hold the powerful accountable, document “invisible” social problems, inform citizens about behind-the-scenes

INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM IN LATIN AMERICA TODAY dealings that otherwise wouldn’t have been known, deliver factual accounts that contradict official silence and lies, push the public to confront the dark side of capitalism and social miseries. In many cases, the publication of exposes single-handedly sparked judicial and congressional investigations, shamed government officials, triggered resignations, and caused public debates on important matters.

No doubt, many cases of investigative journalism by both legacy news organisations and digital native sites still have similar consequences. Certain stories sparked actions and contributed to effective policy change. Operacao Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), the biggest political corruption scandal in Brazil’s history, is a good example. In January 2016, leading daily Folha de Sdo Paulo reported that former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva benefited from the works that construction company Odebrecht made in a country house located in Atibaia, Sao Paulo, in exchange for favouring this company in contracts with state-owned oil giant Petrobras. The reporting process included data-journalism techniques and led to investigations that uncovered an unprecedented web of corruption in Brazil that ultimately extended to at least 12 countries, imprisoning company executives and public officials. At the same time, Peruvian non-profit investigative journalism organisation IDL-Reporteros revealed that Odebrecht also obtained contracts for public works in Peru. As such, the Lava Jato scandal is also an example of collaboration, where journalists from different countries joined forces to exchange sources and contacts but also to achieve a better global understanding of the case (López Linares, 2017).

Similar examples can be found in other Latin American countries. In Mexico, “El pais de las 2 mil fosas” (The country of the 2 thousand graves) revealed how, between 2006 and 2016, the finding of clandestine graves in Mexico spread across the country. Using public documents, a group of independent journalists (sponsored by Quinto Elemento Lab) mapped the location of the graves and exposed the lack of organisation of Mexican authorities.

In 2018, an investigation led by La Nación journalist Diego Cabot uncovered years of briberies paid to Argentina’s public officers by businessmen who benefited with large contracts. Known as “Los Cuadernos de la Corrupción” (The notebook scandal), this investigation had access to notebooks written by a driver of a public works official, who documented the times, value and even the weight of the bags of money he delivered around Buenos Aires. More than a dozen people have been arrested in Argentina due to the notebook scandal.

In 2012, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera promised to conduct the “best census ever” to know more about the Chilean population. However, a report by CIPER. exposed serious methodological errors and manipulation of figures during the presentation of results. The director of the National Statistics Institute (in charge of the census) was forced to resign, and the census had to be conducted again in 2017, during Michelle Bachelet’s second presidential term.

In Costa Rica, La Nación reporter Giannina Segnini uncovered political scandals that ended with two presidents prosecuted for corruption charges: Rafael Ángel Calderón (Caja-Fischel case) and Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (ICE-Alcatel case). In Guatemala, investigative reporting that exposed a corruption network in the government had a crucial role in the resignation and subsequent detention of President Otto Pérez Molina in 2015. News outlets such as Guatemalan daily elPeriódico, magazine ContraPoder, and digital native Nómada led and strengthened the work of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and the Public Prosecutors Office (Higuera and Mioli, 2017).

We believe that investigate journalism matters for several reasons. It leaves public records of truth. It sheds light on social problems that otherwise wouldn’t be widely known. It challenges factless, manipulative versions of reality.

Questions for future research

The situation in Latin America raises questions we believe are significant for comparative studies of investigative journalism globally. What is remarkable is that despite well-known challenges in the news industry coupled with difficult conditions for critical reporting on power abuses and wrongdoing, investigative journalism has been resilient, innovative, and impactful. Reporters working in legacy news organisations and digital sites have continued to confront a range of obstacles, including the editorial positions of their own organisations. Yet they have managed to produce a steady stream of stories on important subjects that otherwise would not have been known. Many stories left an important record in terms of exposing wrongdoing and holding the powerful accountable, as described in the previous examples. However, cautious conclusions are warranted given the persistence of tough conditions for in-depth reporting on subjects affecting powerful interests, as well as intractable problems for political accountability in Latin American democracies.

Journalism scholars should refrain from piling up ambitious expectations about investigative journalism and address the feasibility of specific normative models in real contexts of practice. Any normative argument about the obligations of investigative journalism needs to be sensitive to political and economic circumstances. Important stories that bring transparency and accountability can drive broad changes only when other conditions are present (Waisbord, 2000). Also, we need to be mindful of the fact that investigative reporting, which generally takes up considerable human and monetary resources, might get easily lost amid information abundance and fast-moving news cycles. We need to understand better the lifespan of investigative stories and examine how stories affect public perceptions about political and social problems and collective action.

Journalism is one institution that, in its best moments, helps to address various informational challenges by injecting reason, facts, and voice in news ecologies and public life. What we need to learn from past waves of excessive optimism about journalistic innovations is that the reality' of journalism and public communication is complex and chaotic, and the impact of investigative journalism is contingent on political factors beyond the reach of the press.

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