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Panama Papers: A game-changer in journalism?4 min read

May 17, 2016 3 min read

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Panama Papers: A game-changer in journalism?4 min read

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“Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data?”

“Very interested”

“There are a couple of conditions. My life is in danger, we will only chat over encrypted files. No meeting ever.”

“How much data are we talking about?”

“More than you have ever seen”

A simple conversation was the beginning of a year of collaborative journalism, revealing a historic leak of data, both in size and the efforts taken to bring it out. The Panama Papers leak started, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) director Gerard Ryle, in the later half of 2014, when an unknown source reached out to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which had reported previously on a smaller leak of Mossack Fonseca files to German government regulators. Bastian Obermayer, a Suddeutsche Zeitung reporter was contacted by the source through encrypted chats with the intent to offer some vital data on politicians, criminals and the rogue industry that hides their cash “to make these crimes public.”

A collaboration of this nature, be it for the number of journalists involved or the news organizations it included; in terms of the autonomy given to each entity to mine the rich material to find stories relevant to their own audiences, is unprecedented. It shows a new form of journalism has taken birth amidst ashes of the older forms – collaborative journalism. Earlier cases involving this kind of journalism have been reported too, for instance the British Virgin Islands (BVI) account investigation of a company called Porternicus Trust Net in 2013, which was again conducted by the ICIJ.

With the leak of about 2.6 Terabytes of data, which involve more than 4.8 million emails, 3 million database files, and 2.1 million PDFs from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that, according to analysis of the leaked documents, appears to specialize in creating shell companies that its clients have used to hide their assets. Shell companies are not in themselves illegal, and they do have legitimate business purposes. However, they are a main component of the underground economy, especially those based in tax havens.

Analaysing data of this magnitude required a matching journalistic effort, one that would end up as the broadest and most technologically challenging journalistic endeavours ever. At the centre of it all was the ICIJ, which helped coordinate the project. But first, they had to get it into good enough shape to be read and shared. Two initial steps were taken: A recruit of a worldwide team of investigative journalists who could mine the data for months and create a platform, secure enough with limited access, where the data could be filtered and then loaded to the platform. In all, more than 370 journalists from more than 100 media outlets in almost 80 countries around the world worked together, which has shed light on the movement of money through shell companies spanning a number of countries.

The ICIJ’s developers then built a two-factor-authentication-protected search engine for the leaked documents, the URL for which they shared via encrypted email with scores of news outlets including the BBC, The Guardian, Fusion, and dozens of foreign-language media outlets. The site even featured a real-time chat system, so that reporters could exchange tips and find translation for documents in languages they couldn’t read. For example, if there were Icelandic documents, it was possible to find an Icelandic reporter to look into the documents, as pointed out by Gerard Ryle. It could be seen who was awake and working so that communication was possible. Different media outlets also held their own in-person meetings in Washington, Munich, London, Johannesburg and Lillehammer.

In spite of the flexibility of access and openness the leaked documents have not become public as yet, maybe just in part, because of its enormity. Moreover, as per Gerard Ryle, the media organizations will probably not release the full dataset because it would expose the sensitive private information of the innocent individuals along with the influential public figures, which the investigation has primarily focused on. Ryle furthermore said, “We’re not WikiLeaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly… We advised the reporters from all the participating media outlets to go crazy, but tell us what’s in the public interest for their country.”

The secrecy of the entire process was equally impressive. With the papers linking big names like Vladimir Putin, Lionel Messi and Jackie Chan, it is evident that the gold-mine of data discovered will not run dry soon. Cracks have already appeared on the walls of off-shore havens and we can expect the future to bring revelations about more people. The last thing the rich and powerful who have offshore bank accounts want is publicity about them. Their questions must be “where next” and “which havens remain safe”? As long as there are collective efforts and the spirit of journalism kept alive, these questions will surely be answered.

Edited by Keshav Padmanabhan