Saturday, April 9, 2016

Panama Papers: Lone-wolf journalists form a pack

Investigative journalists have achieved a new level of sophistication and collaboration as shown by this explosive investigation of offshore tax havens used by the wealthy and powerful. 

The investigation by 109 media organizations from 76 countries has shaken government leaders from China to Russia to Great Britain. It has led to the resignation of the prime minister of Iceland, who used a tax haven to avoid paying taxes on 3.5 million euros. 

The 376 journalists on the Panama Papers team overcame many obstacles, not the least of which was their own competitiveness. All of these journalists and news organizations agreed not to publish any of their findings until the agreed upon time on Sunday April 3. 

Versión en español

These journalists, who are accustomed to work like lone wolves and jealously keep their sources and information to themselves, had to "radically share" information with each other and overcome differences in language, culture, and practice. 

An enormous leak

And they adopted the new tools and techniques of big data to sift through 11.5 million documents that contained the names of thousands of people, families, companies, and organizations that would have meaning only to reporters whose local knowledge could interpret their context correctly. 

Marina Walker Guevara. Photo: Center for Public Integrity
The Panama Papers landed in the hands of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in Washington from the German news organization Süddeutsche Zeitung, which had received them from an anonymous source. 

The trove consists of documents of many different kinds and formats from the files of a law firm in Panama, Mossack Fonseca, which specializes in setting up bank accounts and corporations in tax havens. (Wired tells the German journalists' story of the leak.)

This is not the first time that ICIJ has directed a multinational investigation on a grand scale. In a speech to investigative journalists in Puerto Rico last fall, ICIJ Deputy Director Marina Walker Guevara described another cross-border investigation--Swiss Leaks-- that involved 175 reporters from 56 countries that resulted in 400-plus articles in 65 different media. It tracked how one Swiss bank, HSBC, knowingly protected clients engaged in illegal activities.

One key to the success of Swiss Leaks, she said, was changing the culture of investigative reporters (in Spanish) and their lone-wolf tendencies. On this project, she promoted "radical sharing" of information among participants in order to get a bigger and better story. 

Here in Spain, the tax authority is launching an investigation after seeing names of Spanish celebrities and business people show up in reports about the Panama Papers. The fallout from these documents will continue as news organizations are still sifting through the files and finding more examples to write about. 

Greater sophistication

The significance of these investigations is that journalists have honed their skills to a level of sophistication that allows them to cross the the national and cultural barriers that have been used by financial experts to help their clients hide their wealth and shield it from taxes, whether legally or illegally. 

Walker Guevara said of this type of investigation: "Beyond the tools we use to work in teams and the technology we use, we believe that good interpersonal relations -- between the coordinators and the reporters on the ground -- have been the key to bringing home a good investigation. That is not to say that the work has been exempt from dramatic moments. In fact, they never end when you're working with reporters who speak different languages, live in various time zones, and come from cultures that are so different, including different journalistic cultures."

In the past, the indifference or inability of authorities from various nations to look beyond their borders for information has been a potent weapon for politicians and business people who want to avoid public scrutiny. Now the message is clear: The watchdog is on the alert. 


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