How a year-long investigation by some 370 journalists from nearly 80 countries unveiled the secret financial dealings of the world's rich and powerful.
The ‘Panama Papers’ refer to more than 11.5 million documents belonging to Mossack Fonseca, a law firm based in the tax haven of Panama, that were leaked on Sunday (April 3), revealing the secret accounts of hundreds of thousands of clients.
The papers cover a period of almost 40 years, from 1977 to December 2015.
The documents are at the heart of a huge investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and more than 100 news organizations around the globe.
Euronews journalist Stefan Grobe spoke to Marina Walker Guevara, ICIJ deputy director. She led the team of more than 370 journalists from nearly 80 countries who delved into the data and wrote the news stories now shaking the world’s elite.
Stefan Grobe, euronews:
As deputy director, what was your role in the investigation?
Marina Walker Guevara, ICIJ Deputy Director:
“I was the project manager, which is like being the orchestra director and holding various other roles in this very huge investigation. It required a lot of coordinating work across cultures, across time zones, across journalistic backgrounds. But we realized that the only way to deal with data this big was to try to get as many local partners all over the world to really mine the information, to find the connections. They are the ones who know what matters in each jurisdiction. And so it was worthwhile, it was worth the stress and also the controlled risk that we took by sharing the information with so many journalists around the world.”
Talk about the investigation: a year-long without any leaks. How did you manage to do that?
- Marina Walker Guevara, ICIJ Deputy Director:*
“The advantage of ICIJ is that we are a pre-established network of journalists. We know one another; we have worked together before in Swissleaks, in Luxleaks and in many of the other investigations. We trust one another and we know that if one goes first, if we break that kind of sacred agreement that we have among all the participants, well, that person is never again going to work with us and is going to lose big. Because if ICIJ had gone alone, or if Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany had gone alone, the impact would have been a tenth or less of what the impact has been when you can publish simultaneously from China to Chile, which is what has happened.”
Have you had any reactions from governments seeking help to prosecute the bad guys?
Marina Walker Guevara, ICIJ Deputy Director:
“We often hear from governments soon after, saying ‘we want to cooperate’ and ‘we want access to your documents so we can do our job’. And we usually – always – tell them: no thank you. We believe we are not an arm of government. We believe that governments have their own resources and they should be investigating very aggressively the use of tax havens. Some of them often don’t. Some of these governments around the world have vested interests in some of these tax havens. It’s a really hard issue. Our mission is to be as independent as possible and as aggressive as possible in the pursuit of truth and in our job as investigative journalists.”
Big international banks play a critical role in these offshore schemes. Some of them have said that the facts that have been unveiled are just old. What is your reaction to that?
Marina Walker Guevara. ICIJ Deputy Director:
“We have seen banks create offshore companies as recent as 2015. So yes, it’s true that after the US prosecutions of different banks, Swiss banks especially, there was a decrease in the number of offshore companies incorporated, at least through Mossack Fonseca, but we also saw that they shift their methodology, and what they did in some cases is that they allowed intermediaries like Mossack Fonseca and others, law firms around the world, to handle that part of the work, to no longer involve themselves directly in helping the clients set up the offshore companies, while the banks would maintain the bank accounts for those companies. So, some of them have taken more aggressive steps. I think that banks in general are asking tougher questions and are taking due diligence a little bit more seriously, but I don’t think that they have completely cut ties with the offshore world. It almost would be impossible for them, because so many of their clients are seeking this secrecy.”