Exoneration of vehicles to legislators

Country/area: Dominican Republic

Organisation: Diario Libre

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 26/09/2021

Credit: Mariela Mejía


Dominican journalist with more than 15 years of journalistic experience. She is currently the Economics editor at the Diario Libre newspaper and a university professor of journalism. She has collaborated on cross-border investigations for Connectas, the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo of Puerto Rico, Vice, OCCRP, and Distintas Latitudes.
For her journalistic work, she has been deserving of journalistic awards in her country and abroad, including an Honorable Mention and finalist for the 2019 and 2020 versions, respectively, of the “Javier Valdez” Latin American Prize for Investigative Journalism, and winner of the Journalistic Investigation category in the 2018 and 2020 versions, of the Open Passport award, granted by the World Organization of Tourism Journalism.

Project description:

Since 1996, Dominican legislators can import up to two vehicles duty-free in a four-year legislative period.

An exhaustive analysis of the historical data of these vehicles since 2010 to 2021 revealed the large number of sports cars and luxury vehicles that are imported on behalf of deputies and senators.

When consulting legislators, they recognized that the exemptions are sold to dealers and individuals for up to US$20,000, meaning a loss of taxes for the State.

Impact reached:

When this story was published it was a scandal. The same day it went viral on social media and WhatsApp, something rare in the Dominican Republic, as newspaper reports do not tend to go viral.
Everyone spoke of the issue scandalized by the high number of expensive vehicles imported on behalf of legislators. Also, because of how legislators during the last 11 years have sold many of the exemptions with which deported cars and luxury vehicles have been imported tax-free, for the use of individuals and entertainment people. Some of those vehicles have been involved in traffic accidents.
The uproar over the publication was such that a public opinion campaign began to repeal the law that privileges legislators with the exemption of vehicles. To the point, that a group of 29 out of 32 senators included in a bill to be eliminated. The proposal was approved in a first reading (the second is missing).
But there were also deputies who took advantage of the sessions in the Chamber of Deputies to criticize those who question the privilege of exonerations and accused the press of having colluded with a private sector to harm them.
The resource we included of the search for vehicles by brand and model was also widely used. Readers filtered by name of legislators and were shown with screenshots in social media the luxurious vehicles in their name.
We really did not think that the story would have such an impact. Even other media, as a result of the stories we published, also continued to cover the issue.

Techniques/technologies used:

To analyze the data, we rely on two documents received after a request for public information.
One from the Ministry of Finance, with the authorization of the exoneration to the legislators, and another from the General Directorate of Customs with the application of the exoneration (which is the one that has the amount finally exonerated).
We organize that data in Excel. We took three full days to organize it by legislator, brand and model. And organize that data in an interactive search engine in which the reader can search for the legislator or vehicle of interest.
The search engine resource was novel, because, although it was not the first time that the press spoke of vehicle exemptions, it was the first time that so much detail was shown and the reader could be a participant in the data.
We use Infogram to empty and organize the data, as it is an easy and intuitive tool.

What was the hardest part of this project?

The most difficult thing was organizing the 11-year data and more than 1,100 vehicles, so that it was possible to search for a vehicle by brand, model and legislator.

Also, extract a story from that data and go further. Understand the meaning of those luxurious vehicles, buses … and why they were there.

What can others learn from this project?

Journalists, especially those who do daily coverage, can learn from this story to present a topic perhaps already covered in the press, but in a way in which the reader feels part of it.

Sometimes it is believed that data journalism only encompasses large databases, such as the Panama Papers, and it does not. The database that we managed, although it was not voluminous, was very revealing, since it was organized by years, names of legislators, the types of imported vehicles and their exempted amounts.

When journalists receive data, the ideal is to stop and think about how to present it to the reader and interpret it meaningfully, not just add it up and give totals or percentages. In regular coverage, like this one, data can be presented in a friendly and impactful way.

Project links: