By: Ayurella Horn-Müller
More than 370 journalists. 11.5 million documents. 200+ countries. 214,000 shell companies. 14 world leaders. 128 public officials. 1 law firm.
Welcome to the largest, and arguably most important, piece of investigative journalism of it’s time – The Panama Papers.
April 3, 2016. A day like any other. On this date, the world saw the Brussels Zaventem International Airport reopen two weeks after the suicide bombings. Tragic flash floods in Pakistan would take the lives of 45 people in the 2016 Khyber Pakhtunkhwa flood. A pro-choice rally drew thousands of people in Warsaw, Poland. Conflicts, protests, and natural disasters occurred all over the world. Yet, April 3rd, 2016 would cement itself in history as a day of mass accountability through a journalistic medium – this was the moment in time in which the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and German media outlet Süddeutsche Zeitung would publish the first of many stories unveiling a project that went on to become a widespread household name: “The Panama Papers.” This investigation publicised the world’s largest-ever data leak, revealing 11.5 million documents from Panamanian-based law firm Mossack Fonseca that exposed illegal activities including “fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion and the violation of international sanctions by the world’s elite…”
“Our firm has never been accused or charged in connection with criminal wrongdoing”, says a Mossack Fonseca public relations officer.
When first approached by someone calling themselves, “john doe,” who offered access to confidential data, Bastian Obermayer did not hesitate to accept the intriguing, albeit shrouded-in-secrecy, offer. Collaborating with fellow journalist Frederik Obermaier at Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German media outlet, Obermayer discusses his initial reaction, growing disbelief, and rapid call to investigative action in their first-hand account of the Panama Papers investigation, The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money. Obermayer was initially given concrete evidence of money smuggling by the then- Argentine president through documents proving illegal transfers of millions of dollars to offshore shell companies. “John doe”, otherwise known as Obermayer’s anonymous source, ended up producing 2.6 terabytes of documents proving Fonseca’s dealings all over the world within as little as a few weeks. The evidence consisted of confidential documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm which would turn out to be one of the largest offshore international providers. Süddeutsche Zeitung had come across suspicions of the firm’s shady dealings in the past, but had lacked the proof needed to implicate it. Obermayer and Obermaier became increasingly aware of the broader political context behind their ever-growing pile of data: within this goldmine of clandestine documents lay massive implications of global political corruption and tax evasion by some of the world’s most powerful leaders and figureheads.
As they began to scan through the files, the duo’s initial hypothesis began to form. Mossack Fonseca was orchestrating and aware of highly illegal financial dealings with some of the world’s most powerful players. The hypothesis evolved to include more and more persons to investigate as the data Obermayer was provided with increased, and the scope of work of the project kept expanding. It became so large, the team decided to reach out to Gerald Ryle, Director at the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists, for help. Ryle would bring in Marina Guevara, ICIJ’s deputy director, and they would eventually recruit lead ICIJ reporters, data journalists, editors, researchers, fact checkers, web designers, as well as hundreds of international reporters. This collaboration would lead to a year long investigation, in which the largest ever network of journalists would work together in secrecy on the task of assembling evidence within a mountain of data in order to implicate countless politicians and leaders in many countries spanning the globe – all thanks to the common link of one legal firm.
Helena Benggston, editor of data projects at the Guardian, was one of the data journalists working on the Panama Papers. She described their strategy to approach the mass amount of data as a, “fishing method.” When questioned on weaknesses of the project, she reported that the affair was quite unstructured and it took some time to develop a clear plan of attack on the mass amounts of information to pull and construct full stories out of. “The method on how we found information,” is something she would, “redo,” if given the chance. Benggston says they “spent too long going at the mountain of data without an angle, or clear strategy.” If she had to do it again, she would, “be more organised,” and “develop a strategy from the get-go,” before involving too many other parties. The key challenges of this investigation are discussed by Obermayer and Obermaier in their novel, and the journalists seem to share a similar perspective to Benggston. The sheer size of the data, and the critical organisation necessary to manage the goals of the project were the biggest challenges for the team – they knew they needed a comprehensive strategy to fully understand and use the documents in the best, most effective way. Alongside the challenges, were the breakthroughs. Ula Brunner, editor at Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg, interviewed Obermayer and Obermaier discusses this with the duo. “As soon as the name of Vladimir Putin’s best friend cropped up in the documents, along with the names of other heads of state and government, we realised – this was an international story that was going to cause quite a stir.” Alongside the links of hidden money tied to Putin, Obermayer and Obermaier name groundbreaking moments such as discovering Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson’s stakes in banks, as well as FIFA officials financial ties, along the way in The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money.
The ICIJ team working on this investigation consisted of nearly 400 journalists from more than 200 countries in the world, all hailing from different cultures, languages and backgrounds. The ICIJ continued to recruit journalists over the course of the investigation, so that they were able to specialise in each country affected, and could fully investigate the key players found to have ties to Mossack Fonseca. As well, the ICIJ wanted domestic journalists who could eventually work with their local press to communicate the relevant stories nationally. The results of the project were massive – and still ongoing today – with Jurgen Mossack and Ramon Fonseca being detained for money laundering, a resignation from Iceland’s then prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif being investigated by the Pakistani Supreme Court, as well as ongoing 150 investigations into cases, and a devaluation of about $135 billion on more than 400 companies tied to Fonseca. From a media viewpoint, this went down as the largest scale cross-collaboration by journalists in history, as well as the largest ever data leak. The ICIJ team were awarded with a Pulitzer Prize in 2017 for the project – and have routinely updated the web-based platform for readers to be kept up to date with the prosecution cases, arrests and ongoing developments with those incriminated by the 11.5 million documents.
Speaking to the magic behind the Panama Papers explosive publication, an evident amount of hard work and attention to detail was invested into the final polished product. The publication itself consisted of a global date – April 3rd, 2016 – which had been agreed upon by Obermayer, Obermeier, Ryle and other lead team members within the investigation. They communicated this date to all ICIJ members involved so that they could prepare their national media outlets with the relevant breaking stories. Another massive challenge of the investigation was brought to play here – the chance of an early leak internally. Within the project, the journalists brought in were sitting on massive stories, and Obermayer, Obermeier and Ryle had to trust that everyone would wait to publish at the agreed upon time. Thankfully, the challenge was overcome by the team with success as the date of publication was adhered to by all.
Hosted on the ICIJ website, the project incorporates five key areas to explore – an introduction, stories, people, data and a game. Alongside core articles outlining the investigation, Hamish Boland-Rudder executive produced a 1-minute introduction video, “The Panama Papers: Victims of Offshore.” This dramatic overview of the “cast of characters” involved in these shady financial dealings has racked up 1.8 million views on Youtube in the past year. ICIJ’s brilliant team of engineers even created their very own interactive game for readers to better understand how offshore companies work. In, “Stairway to Tax Heaven,” the player gets to experience the secret world of offshore banking by selecting a character and navigating a series of choices with the aim of not getting caught. With main characters of the game being a politician, business executive and soccer player, this clever game is evidently the ICIJ’s not-so-subtle way of hammering the aim of their global investigation home.
Another interactive piece of the ICIJ publication is their infamous, “Power Players,” app. With more than millions of visitors to this particular part of the website, “Power Players,” exists as a thoroughly engaging way for readers to grasp the enormity of the scandal and the relevance of those involved. The team at ICIJ spent months compiling extensive research from worldwide public records to add to the narrative from the Mossack Fonseca documents to illustrate the profiles of these key country leaders, politicians, and public officials. Notably, the website also provides public access to Offshore Leaks – a database containing details on nearly 500,000 offshore companies that are part of the Panama Papers investigation. The data available for use includes almost 40 years of information and more than 200 countries and regions.
From a global standpoint, those implicated in the Panama Papers leak are nearly countless. Amongst many other notable public figureheads, both domestic and international media published breaking stories on Icelandic prime minister, Argentina’s president, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, the United States CIA, China’s ruling elite, Pakistani prime minister, and Australia’s prime minister, all with ties to offshore companies in tax havens through Fonseca. An enthralling, but shocking wake up call for an industry infamous for it’s elusivity, the ICIJ’s, “Panama Papers,” continues to remind the world’s most powerful that no amount of money can buy a complete lack of accountability. Bengtsson agrees. “The Panama Papers reminded us that…as a journalist, you have power.”
Bengtsson, Helena. Live presentation at a Data Journalism lecture for students at Gothenburg University. Tuesday, September 26th, 2017.
Brunner, Ula. ‘An Interview with Bastian Obermayer: Leaks Have an Important Control Function.’ Goethe Institute. Accessed October 9, 2017.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), https://panamapapers.icij.org/
The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money – Bastian Obermayer, Frederik Obermaier – Oneworld Publications, 30 Mar 2017 – 384 p.
‘What Happened on April 3rd.’ http://www.onthisday.com/day/april/3. Accessed 9 October 2017.