The Panama Papers: A Global Triumph for Quality Journalism

Tom Law

It has been a momentous week for the world of journalism. The publication of the Panama Papers this week has demonstrated not just the value of responsible investigative reporting in holding the rich and powerful to account, but that ethical journalism remains a cornerstone of democracy both at home and abroad.

In an unprecedented display of media co-operation many of the world’s leading news organisations have joined forces to break a story that has exposed the secrecy and hypocrisy of people in public life across the globe.

Already the Prime Minister of Iceland and Chile’s head of Transparency International have been forced to resign and a spotlight has been shone one numerous politicians who have sought to hide their wealth and the methods that sanctions on Syria and other countries have been broken. Also under the spotlight are public figures from the world of sport, entertainment and across the spectrum of public life, all of whom are being forced to answer journalists’ legitimate questions about how their wealth has been secretly shipped abroad beyond the reach of tax authorities and hidden from public scrutiny.

The leak of 2.6 terabytes of data in 11.5 million documents which track the movement of billions of dollars over almost four decades, was kept secret for almost a year by over 370 journalists, from over 100 media outlets across the world.

It appears that media and whistleblowers have learnt from the experience of WikiLeaks and previous mass leaks of information. They have acknowledged that just releasing these documents without first carefully editing, distilling and verifying the information contained within them would not be in the public interest.

A mountain of data dumped on the internet is of little use to the public at large unless it is analysed and presented in bite-size chunks and in a context that people can understand.

Journalists have also had to think ethically about publishing some of the information. Media have taken their time to ensure that people who are not in public life do not have their privacy compromised. Publishing information without first considering the impact on those affected by it is potentially reckless.

For that reason, journalists and their editors led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) have embarked upon a process of careful, sensitive and painstaking reporting. They have produced journalism that helps people make sense of overwhelming amount of detail that is contained in the papers. This is in sharp contrast to the ICIJ’s decision in 2014 to make a whole database of leaked information on tax havens available online.

Offshore Leaks - ICIJTwo years ago the ICIJ made that database of leaked information on tax havens available as a searchable online database called Offshore Leaks. In this database the ICIJ make it clear that they did not add information or make assumptions about the individuals and companies included and withheld “a great deal of personal information such as email address telephone numbers and bank accounts.”

Before accessing the database readers are asked to acknowledge a disclaimer before accessing the site.

“There are legitimate uses for offshore companies and trusts. We do not intend to suggest or imply that any persons, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”

The ICIJ explained how they put together database and the choices they made about what to include and what to redact in this video.

Some activists, like Kristinn Hrafnsson of Wikileaks, are now calling for the whole Panama Papers leak to be published.

But the ICIJ have said that the responsible way to publish the information is to make the data available in a piece by piece, rather than the making the whole database available online.

The director of the ICIJ, Gerard Ryle, told Wired that the media organisations involved in the investigation do not intend to release the full data set as it would not just reveal information about public figures but also expose sensitive information about private individuals.

“We’re not WikiLeaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly,” Ryle told Wired.

The ICIJ, Ryle says, advised all of those involved in investigating the data to “go crazy, but tell us what’s in the public interest for your country.”

Le Monde, one of the media organisations involved in the investigation, said that one subset of the data, the one containing the list of the offshore companies – but not the document on each entity – will be published this summer.

The article went on to give four reasons as to why the full data set would not be made public:

* Many of the company owners listed in the leak are citizens of Panama who received a small amount of money in exchange for their role in the offshore companies and they are not the real beneficiaries of the financial system.

* The full data set includes lots of personal data, sometimes revealing health issues like cancer.

* The journalists leading the investigation need time verify potential false positives and identify homonyms.

* As offshore companies are not illegal per se, the media organisations wanted to give the opportunity to high profile individuals on the list to respond to the accusations against them.

(Thanks to Pierre Chrzanowski for the translation)

Meanwhile, the journalism is challenging some of the world’s most powerful people.

In Britain, the Prime Minister David Cameron who has led political efforts to reduce the influence of tax havens has been embarrassed by revelations of his late father’s role in using offshore arrangements to manage his family fortune.

And the leak has tested the censorship powers of China’s Communist Party which has been shaken by revelations in the Panama Papers that eight members of the political elite in Beijing have family members who have used offshore companies.

Among the prominent figures taking advantage of offshore arrangements are the brother-in-law of the president, Xi Jinping, and the son-in-law of Zhang Gaoli, a member of China’s top political body, the politburo.

In response to the reports China’s censors have been typically robust, blocking access to the unfolding revelations about its political leaders and their families. Chinese news groups were ordered to purge all mention of the Panama Papers from their websites and warned of harsh punishment if they are found to have published material “attacking China”. Censors have also been deleting posts on the social networks Sina Weibo and Wechat.

Over the coming days and weeks more will be revealed and not just about public figures in China. Hundreds of rich and powerful people around the world, many of them public figures, who have been able to evade legitimate public scrutiny of their personal and institutional financial affairs will be called to account.

This will happen not just because of the actions of courageous whistle-blowers who have given the public access to documents that expose secrecy and potential financial mischief, but because of meticulous, painstaking and ethical reporting that has extracted the most relevant and useful facts to tell compelling stories.