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The Panama Papers Fifth Anniversary Panel

On April 3, 2016, at 2 pm EST, the world was rocked by the publication of the Panama Papers investigation led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. In the biggest collaboration of its kind, 376 journalists from 107 media companies in 80 countries sifted through, investigated and fact-checked 11.5 million documents or 2.6 terabytes of data, some dating back decades, comprising emails, images, databases, spreadsheets, passports and corporate records exposing shell companies that kept off-shore accounts that were used for corrupt purposes like tax evasion, money-laundering, organized crime and other illegal financial activities. The data dump was leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca by a whistleblower, whose identity remains unknown to this day even to the journalists involved in the investigation.

The initial leak was made to Bastian Obermayer, deputy head of the investigative unit of the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung. Realizing the extensiveness of the data, Obermayer reached out to ICIJ which brought the other media outlets on board. For a year, the journalists worked in secrecy following the dirty money that led to current and former heads of state and politicians across the globe. Some of those Mossack Fonseca clients were president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad; Pakistani president Nawaz Sharif; Vladimir Putin; Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, the prime minister of Iceland; British Prime Minister David Cameron and Donald Trump. The Panama Papers investigation won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

On April 15, 2021, ICIJ held a panel discussion via zoom for the five-year anniversary of the groundbreaking investigation. Participants were Obermayer; Rita Vasquez, director of the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa and filmmaker Alex Winter, director of the 2018 documentary The Panama Papers. The panel was moderated by Venezuelan journalist Emilia Diaz-Struck, ICIJ’s research editor and Latin America partnerships coordinator.

Diaz-Struck talked about her memories of the first days after the stories broke. “We had citizens around the world demonstrating in the streets, official investigations announced, and even resignations of powerful figures. The impact that followed was unprecedented. It was beyond what anyone on the team could have imagined. This project was the result of a powerful combination of people, data and technology.”

Obermayer described the initial contact with the whistleblower on a day when his entire family was ill. In between getting them medicine and changing sheets when they were sick, he was in conversations with “John Doe” who told Obermayer his life was in danger. “So it wasn’t an ideal situation. I had to go back and forth between my device and my family, but at the end of the day, I had the first seven documents, seven out of, later, 11.5 million documents.” When he realized they implicated Putin’s best friend and the Prime Minister of Iceland, he realized the project was way too big for one newspaper and called ICIJ.

Technology was key to the collaboration between the various partners, Diaz-Struck explained. ICIJ already had graph databases that allowed visualizations to explore connections between companies and people, a document research platform that basically worked as a google-search to find people, and a global ihub – a virtual newsroom network – where journalists could share findings. With the initial knowledge that 140 politicians in more than 50 countries were implicated, more and more journalists were added as the project grew in scope. 

Vasquez was at the center of the drama as Mossack Fonseca was based in Panama, even though it had international clients the world over. “Panama was at the heart of this investigation, basically in the middle of this worldwide earthquake,” she said. “At the beginning, people didn’t really believe it because it was so surreal. Then we published, an hour late. And then people realized it was true.” Then came the backlash. “After that, we suffered. We saw a lot of subscribers dropping off. We saw a lot of death threats to the journalists and the team. We were called traitors.” Her team persisted in their reporting with additional security hired, and eventually, a lot of changes were made in the Panamanian regulations. Unfortunately, according to her, a lot of the shady financial dealings merely shifted jurisdictions. Instead of Panama, they went to Nevada, Montana or Wyoming, among other places.

Alex Winter got interested in the subject “because it was the largest coordinated act of journalism in history coupled with the first 21st-century scandal that was unveiled through a global network,” he explained. When he started filming, the fallout over the investigations was just beginning. “The story was extremely active and we were taking enormous precautions. I was traveling incognito, everything was encrypted, no emails, no calls.”

He talked about the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia for her exposés of the local politicians that occurred in the middle of his shoot and expressed his admiration for the bravery of the journalists that stood up to threats and continued with their work. Obermayer mentioned that he and his colleague, Frederik Obermeier, who coordinated the investigation together were threatened too, their faces flashed across every Russian propaganda network in a documentary, and said that he wouldn’t be going to Russia any time soon. “No one really understood back then what we had started,” he said.

The journalists on the panel talked about the Daphne Project set up after Galicia’s death. “We told the story of her murder, but also we tried to finish her stories that she had already started investigating. It was important to keep the pressure in Malta active. You can kill the messenger but not the message,” said Obermayer.

As a result of the Panama Papers, at a conservative estimate, a total of $1.36 billion in unpaid taxes was collected in 24 countries, fines and penalties were assessed and changes made in the tax regulations. Now countries like Germany require off-shore money be accounted for – accountholders have to declare where it came from and how it was earned, making it harder for people to hide black money. At one time there were at least 150 investigations ongoing in nearly 80 countries by police, prosecutors, courts and tax authorities. To this day, the repercussions are being felt, with a Peruvian candidate for office stepping down with new investigations in his financial life related to the original revelations, as well as arrests in the Galicia murder.

Obermayer was quick to caution that the Mossack Fonseca leaks were from just one company. According to him, there are probably about 200 such firms around the world who do similar secretive work for hundreds of crooked clients that have not yet been investigated.

Journalistic collaboration of this kind is here to stay for huge stories with a public impact, according to Vasquez. Diaz-Struck explained the criteria for inviting collaboration. ICIJ principals ask themselves if the matter is global, if it’s a systemic problem and if it affects the citizenry, and then decide whether to expand an investigation. In fact, ICIJ came out with the Paradise Papers in 2017, another huge project based on leaks on corporate tax shelters, this time involving the companies Appleby and Asiaciti Trust. Again, Obermayer and Suddeutche Zeitung were the initial contacts; ICIJ was brought in to make it a global investigation with 100 media partners.

According to Variety, Winter’s film is “. . . a moral inquiry into how the top echelon is now united, structurally and spiritually, in robbing the rest of us blind . . . since 2015, the richest 1% of the world’s population has more money than the other 99% combined. Just think about that. It’s outrageous, it’s unjust, it’s just plain wrong — but the hugely significant fact is that when wealth becomes that concentrated, a system of invisible accounting for the elite is no longer merely the banking equivalent of a naughty off-shore playground. It has literally become the system.” Winter believes it will be years before significant change is made in the US despite the Corporate Transparency Act which was passed in a bipartisan manner. Big change is incremental, but he remains optimistic.

The conversation wound up with the panelists urging viewers to support journalism. Vazquez made an important point on the subject. “[If not for journalists,] people will never know what happens around them. They would not know when there’s corruption, they would not know when a politician is out of line … That’s the importance of this job. We are friends of democracy and transparency.”

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association granted $1 million to ICIJ in 2018. In 2020, the consortium received a second multi-year grant of $500,000 from the HFPA.

Other major investigations by ICIJ include the Luanda Leaks, FinCEN Files, Implant Leaks and Luxembourg Leaks. In-depth information on all of them can be found on icij.org.