Panama Papers, the journalism story behind the scandal
Interview with Peter Bale, behind the scenes of the biggest data journalism project of all time
This week has been marked by the release of the Panama Papers, a collection of leaked documents exposing a widespread system of global tax evasion, also labelled as the biggest data journalism project of all time. Hundreds of journalists around the world, coordinated by the Washington, DC-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, have collaborated on this investigation exposing a widespread system of global tax evasion. The leak includes more than 4.8 million emails, 3 million database files, and 2.1 million PDFs from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca which appears to help shell companies hide their assets.
The Panama Papers investigation was carried out by the ICIJ, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and about 370 journalists from more than 70 countries. In what circumstances did you receive the leaked documents? What was your first reaction when you received them and what was the first steps to get the investigation started?
Süddeutsche Zeitung had worked with the ICIJ on the Swiss Leaks investigation into HSBC — which won a Data Journalism Award last year — and knew the network could manage a story of this scale and importance. The scale of the leak became clear with each passing month and more and more daunting but the SZ and the ICIJ data team did an outstanding job to enlarge the existing infrastructure to handle it and to add more tools.
What were the biggest challenges you faced along the way, first in terms of working on such a huge amount of data, and second in terms of the international scope of this investigation and the coordination required to lead such a big team of investigative and data journalists globally?
Receiving the data and making it searchable and indexable and manageable was a huge job which stretched the SZ and ICIJ teams but showed that the methods the ICIJ had deployed on the Swiss Leaks, Lux Leaks and Offshore Leaks projects were robust and scalable. The collaboration has been extraordinary and included two major conferences — one with more than 100 attendees — in Washington, DC and Munich. Again, it shows the value of the collaboration model and tools built by the ICIJ. The fact everyone on the project was a "sharer" and prepared to collaborate kept it together and prevented any "leaks from the leak”.
What technologies did you use to sort out the data and communicate with one another throughout the investigation?
The ICIJ has developed a suite of collaboration tools built on open source platforms to allow secure and scalable collaboration between those who have agreed and been invited to take part. It uses a range of software and search tools to make the documents searchable, collated and sortable.
Mossack Fonseca, mentioned in the Panama Papers investigation, says it complies with international protocols and their services are regulated. It is also important to keep in mind that it is completely legal – and quite frequent – for individuals and companies to store capital in offshore locations. So where and what is the silver lining for journalists looking at the Panama Papers? What were you specifically looking for? Are you pointing to administrative and intelligence failures or institutional corruption?
The investigation pulls back the veil of secrecy on a vast network of offshore companies and connections used for legitimate and for highly illegitimate reasons, from tax evasion to sanctions breaking to hiding the fruits of political and business corruption. There is no single mission for doing this other than to expose information that deserves to be in the public realm and which if people knew was happening in secret would concern them. Not to mention authorities wanting to combat crime.
What consequences do you expect/hope for from the publication of the Panama Papers?
Consequences for those named or the companies identified are up to the authorities. Journalistically, we would hope that people around the world understand better the methods their elites use to hide their money and to abet corruption. We also hope that a huge story like this shows the value of investigative journalism and the importance of sustaining it. The ICIJ is part of the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit supported entirely by philanthropic donations. I would hope people will support us based on the impact of Panama Papers.
This leak is the biggest ever in the history of data journalism. Yet, many will bring up the issue of privacy. Even though there is a lot of public interest in the figures concerned or cited, do you worry about the legal battle that could follow this investigation? Are you prepared and how?
We have sought comment from all the individuals we are writing about. Some have legitimate reasons for this secrecy, some will not. We are dealing almost exclusively with public figures, including politicians who at the very least may be guilty of hypocrisy.
In a recent press release, you say that even before the publication of the Panama Papers you had reactions from some governments involved? Which ones? Have you, as a consortium, been threatened of retaliation? What about the journalists who worked on this project?
The ICIJ and its partners have asked authorities in many countries for comment if they or their leaders are referred to in the stories, such as our approach to the Kremlin to ask questions about the associates of Vladimir Putin. The Center and the ICIJ regularly receive legal threats and from time to time subjects of stories will also launch vexatious cases to tie us in legal difficulty. Security of our people and those of partners is high in our minds on a story like this.
What are some of the main considerations, ethical and others, that journalists and editors should keep in mind when publishing or redacting leaked information? Do you have any tips?
We try to expose only information that is genuinely of public interest and about public figures. We also seek comment from those mentioned. The ICIJ has worked on this data for more than a year and has been rigorous in its analysis and fact checking.