Three journalists who helped break the "Panama Papers" secret asset scandal last month described May 12 at the National Press Club their year-long secret investigation of hidden assets, as well as innovative methods and future implications.
In the largest leak probe in journalism history, some 376 investigative journalists from 80 countries worked collaboratively to report stories beginning April 3 on 11.5 million financial records from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca.
The firm is one of the world's top creators of shell companies that hide the assets of the wealthy. The probe has prompted official resignations and ongoing investigations in several nations.
Also, the probe coordinated by International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has created hope that a new model can augment traditional investigative reporting, which is so expensive and otherwise difficult that most news organizations have curtailed ambitious projects.
"Collaboration is the way to go," said ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker Guevara, "not the 'lone wolf' model." She is shown with her ICIJ colleagues Will Fitzgibbon (at left) and Kevin Hall (at far right), the chief economics correspondent for McClatchy chain of newspapers. Panel moderator Thomas Burr, press club president and Washington correspondent for the Salt Lake Tribune, is at center in the photo republished courtesy of photographer Noel St. John.
"The Panama Papers," she said, "show an array of behavior far beyond tax evasion," and include traffic in drugs, arms, and people (for sex).
Burr opened the discussion by noting that one of ICIJ's first meetings on its scoop occurred in secret nearly a year previous at the club in the room right behind where the panel was sitting. "Honestly," he said,"we at the club had no idea what they were talking about. Until now. That was one of the first meetings of the consortium of journalists who are investigating what we now call 'the Panama Papers.'"
ICIJ began breaking its story, Giant leak of offshore financial records exposes global array of crime and corruption. April 3 on its site. Charles Lewis (shown in a file photo), an American University journalism professor, best-selling author and former ABC and CBS News producer, founded ICIJ in 1997.
Partner news organizations around the world published or broadcast their own versions under a plan whereby ICIJ controlled the timing, but participating outlets controlled the subject and approach.
ICIJ's story began:
A massive leak of documents exposes the offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders and reveals how associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin secretly shuffled as much as $2 billion through banks and shadow companies. The leak also provides details of the hidden financial dealings of 128 more politicians and public officials around the world.
The cache of 11.5 million records shows how a global industry of law firms and big banks sells financial secrecy to politicians, fraudsters and drug traffickers as well as billionaires, celebrities and sports stars.
These are among the findings of a yearlong investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other news organizations.
How the Scoop Started
An individual known as "John Doe" approached the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) with an offer to leak the documents. The source remains anonymous even to journalists on the investigation. "My life is in danger," he wrote them.
"Pay attention to whistleblowers," said the ICIJ's Walker Guevara in describing lessons learned from the project. She praised the newspaper SZ for following that procedure even though newsrooms are increasingly busy during an era of decreased income. She praised the organization also for realizing that the data and story possibilities were too massive for one news organization.
Even ICIJ, with 12 staffers and a base in Washington, DC, was far too small to handle the workload. Therefore it went beyond its usual 190 partners to organize approximately twice that many for this project.
Hall, shown in another photo by Noel St. John, said his employer McClatchy has detailed him for a year on the project virtually full time. He said two of his McClatchy colleagues have been working on it full-time for a half-year even though the company has been undergoing significant cost-cutting and management changes, like most mainstream news organizations.
ICIJ's website describes how it has been organized to overcome such financial difficulties:
ICIJ was launched as a project of the Center for Public Integrity to extend the Center’s style of watchdog journalism, focusing on issues that do not stop at national frontiers: cross-border crime, corruption, and the accountability of power. Backed by the Center and its computer-assisted reporting specialists, public records experts, fact-checkers and lawyers, ICIJ reporters and editors provide real-time resources and state-of-the-art tools and techniques to journalists around the world....
The need for such an organization has never been greater. Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government.
The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most.
Our aim is to bring journalists from different countries together in teams - eliminating rivalry and promoting collaboration. Together, we aim to be the world’s best cross-border investigative team.
What we do
The leaked data covered nearly 40 years, from 1977 through the end of 2015. It permits an unprecedented view of the world of offshore finances. Panelists said some journalists have faced litigation threats but none have been sued so far. Also, they said that Panama's government strongly discourages use of the name "Panama Papers" for the scandal and instead prefers that it reference only the law firm Mossack an Fonseca. ICIJ note that sanctions against the media are different around the world, thus providing another reason to empower local news outlets to publish information according to their best judgment regarding the facts and also their audience temperment.
Although some critics might speculate that the concept of "collaborative" journalism might create gatekeepers with too much control over sensitive topics, ICIJ's deputy director emphasized that local partners can emphasize what they think important, with the benefit of both local knowledge of the players and expected audience reaction.
The panelists stressed also that the many stories already published around the world about the financial disclosures are just the beginning.
"This is the gift," Hall said, "that's going to keep on giving for a long time."
Related News Coverage
National Press Club, Panama Papers Data Breach with ICIJ Panel, May 12, 2016 (88 min. video above). Journalists involved in the reporting of the Panama Papers data breach took part in a panel discussion sponsored by the National Press Club Journalism Institute. Speakers included reporters from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and McClatchy Newspapers. The Panama Papers is a leak of 11.5 million financial documents from the database of the offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca located in Panama.
C-SPAN, Panama Papers Data Breach, May 12, 2016 (92 min. video). Panama Papers journalists talked about data reporting and the Panama Papers, which were 11.5 million leaked documents pertaining to offshore shell companies created by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Giant leak of offshore financial records exposes global array of crime and corruption, Staff report, April 3, 2016. The files expose offshore companies controlled by the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan. They also include at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government because of evidence that they’ve done business with Mexican drug lords, terrorist organizations like Hezbollah or rogue nations like North Korea and Iran.
One of those companies supplied fuel for the aircraft that the Syrian government used to bomb and kill thousands of its own citizens, U.S. authorities have charged.
“These findings show how deeply ingrained harmful practices and criminality are in the offshore world,” said Gabriel Zucman, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Hidden Wealth of Nations: The Scourge of Tax Havens. Zucman, who was briefed on the media partners’ investigation, said the release of the leaked documents should prompt governments to seek “concrete sanctions” against jurisdictions and institutions that peddle offshore secrecy.
World leaders who have embraced anti-corruption platforms feature in the leaked documents. The files reveal offshore companies linked to the family of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, who has vowed to fight “armies of corruption,” as well as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has positioned himself as a reformer in a country shaken by corruption scandals. The files also contain new details of offshore dealings by the late father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, a leader in the push for tax-haven reform.
The leaked data covers nearly 40 years, from 1977 through the end of 2015. It allows a never-before-seen view inside the offshore world — providing a day-to-day, decade-by-decade look at how dark money flows through the global financial system, breeding crime and stripping national treasuries of tax revenues.
ICIJ, The Power Players, Staff report, April 3, 2016. This interactive produced by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) explores the stories behind the use of offshore companies of politicians and their relatives and associates — more than 100 in all. Among them are 12 current or former country leaders and more than 30 other politicians and public officials with direct connections to structures in tax havens. Their names appeared inside a cache of 11.5 million leaked files from Panama's Mossack Fonseca, one of the biggest offshore service providers. ICIJ and Süddeutsche Zeitung led a global investigation to unveil their secrets, publishing the first stories from "The Panama Papers" on April 3, 2016.
Wikipedia, Panama Papers. The Panama Papers are 11.5 million leaked documents that detail financial and attorney-client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities. The leaked documents were created by Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca; some dated back to the 1970s.
The leaked documents illustrate how wealthy individuals, including public officials, are able to keep personal financial information private. While the use of offshore business entities is often not illegal, reporters found that some of the shell corporations were used for illegal purposes, including fraud, kleptocracy, tax evasion, and evading international sanctions.
"John Doe," who leaked the documents to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), remains anonymous, even to journalists on the investigation. "My life is in danger", he told them.
In a May 6 statement, John Doe cited income inequality, and said he leaked the documents "simply because I understood enough about their contents to realise the scale of the injustices they described." He added that he has never worked for any government or intelligence agency and expressed willingness to help prosecutors. After SZ verified that it did come from the Panama Papers source, ICIJ posted the full written statement on its website.
Because of the number of documents, SZ asked the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for help. Journalists from 107 media organizations in 80 countries analyzed documents detailing the operations of the law firm. After more than a year of analysis, the first news stories were published on April 3, 2016, along with 149 of the documents themselves. The project represents an important milestone in the use of data journalism software tools and mobile collaboration.
The documents were quickly dubbed the Panama Papers. The Panamanian government strongly objects to the name; so do other entities in Panama and elsewhere. Some media outlets covering the story have used the name "Mossack Fonseca papers."
Selected Washington Post Coverage
Associated Press via Washington Post, The Latest: ‘Panama Papers’ database spurs anti-graft moves, Staff report, May 10, 2016. The Latest on the release of a database listing offshore companies named in the Panama Papers
Associated Press via Washington Post, Panama Papers database of offshore companies to goes live, David McHugh, May 9, 2016. A group of investigative journalists on Monday published the names of thousands of offshore companies at the heart of a massive trove of data on the finances of the rich and powerful that has become known as the Panama Papers.
Washington Post, You can now search the Panama Papers — the secret accounts of the global rich — yourself, Ana Swanson, May 9, 2016. Some of the information from the Panama Papers, a vast trove of more than 11 million leaked documents that have cast a light into the shadowy world of offshore finance, is now available to the public for the first time. Some of the information from the Panama Papers, a vast trove of more than 11 million leaked documents that have cast a light into the shadowy world of offshore finance, is now available to the public for the first time. The Washington Post is joining a group of global media organizations in publishing a searchable database of more than 300,000 opaque offshore entities.
Washington Post, Panama Papers include dozens of Americans tied to financial frauds, Michael Hudson, Jake Bernstein, Ryan Chittum, Will Fitzgibbon and Catherine Dunn, May 9, 2016. Information on offshore accounts sheds light on activities of individuals accused of crimes. Len Gotshalk, an Atlanta Falcons football player turned Oregon businessman, had a history of legal issues by the time he went looking to buy an offshore company in 2010. Lawsuits and criminal filings had accused the former NFL offensive lineman of fraud and racketeering.
Gotshalk isn’t the only American with legal issues who has used Mossack Fonseca’s services. A review of the law firm’s internal files by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and other media partners has identified offshore companies created by Mossack Fonseca that were tied to at least 36 Americans accused of fraud or other serious financial misconduct.
International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Marisa Taylor and Kevin G. Hall of McClatchy Newspapers, Matthew Kish of the Portland Business Journal, and Alice Brennan, Alcione Gonzalez and Laura Juncadella of Fusion Investigates contributed to this report.
Washington Post, U.S. launches ‘criminal investigation’ involving Panama Papers, Matt Zapotosky, April 20, 2016. A federal prosecutor in New York has opened a criminal investigation involving the Panama Papers — a trove of materials from a Panamanian law firm that show a massive, secretive world of offshore industry.
In a letter to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara (shown in an official photo) wrote that his office had “opened a criminal investigation regarding matters to which the Panama Papers are relevant,” and he asked to speak with someone who had worked on the project. The Guardian newspaper, which was among those to analyze the materials, posted a copy of the letter on its website.