Consequences of the Panama Papers: Good for accountability, bad for journalist safety

Eight months after the Panama Papers were published, the impacts of the leaks are still reverberating – both for those implicated in the revelations, and for the journalists who reported them.

In fact, on the very day that the 17th annual International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) opened in Panama City, Europol revealed that almost 3,500 of the entities and individuals identified in the Panama Papers had links to terrorism, cyber crime, drug trafficking, human trafficking, and other organized crime.

Meanwhile, according to Rolando Rodriguez, Associate Director of La Prensa, one of Panama’s top news outlets, said attorneys from Mossack Fonseca, the firm whose files were leaked, had called for arrests of journalists attending the IACC,  “They’re accusing those of us in this very room of stealing data from Mossack Fonseca,” said Rodriguez.

The latest threats of arrests targeting the journalists who investigated the Panama Papers are only part of a continuing pattern of retaliation that includes lawsuits, cyberattacks, and more, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Much of the conference’s opening day was devoted to spotlighting the collaborative open-source reporting process that ignited an international chain reaction to root out corruption: public protests that forced the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister and led to government inquiries into the president of Argentina, questions about the financial dealings of the PMs of Britain and Pakistan, police raids and arrests of money launderers for drug cartels, tax authorities recovering tens of millions of dollars and tracing billions more, stricter banking regulations from the UK to New Zealand, and even the sentencing and fining of star footballer Lionel Messi.

The first fall from grace — that of the Prime Minister of Iceland — was entirely people-powered. Icelanders, acting on information presented by journalist Johannes Kristjansson, forced the PM to resign within just two days. In riveting footage produced by Reykjavik Media, Kristjansson planned to directly question the PM about his offshore company, but did so under the guise of an interview about Iceland’s recovery from the financial crisis. The broadcast immediately brought almost 10% of Iceland’s adult population out into the streets to protest. “In Iceland, everybody knows everybody. To have people so high up involved and nobody know about it was a shock.”

People must continue to be empowered long after resignations, and the consequences must go beyond them, said journalist Hugo Alconada of Argentina’s La Nación. Alconada, whose journalism exposed the illicit financial activities of everyone from Argentina’s current president to FIFA officials, continued, “We need more changes in laws that will end tax evasion.”

Alconada is convinced that incremental investigative reporting and cooperation with whistleblowers within companies is key. For instance, he explained that it took him four years to “build a puzzle” investigating a chain of hotels because he had to wait until an employee left the company in order to contact them. “We look for small pieces of the puzzle to give us a key to the main door to the company, or even better, the back door.”

Panama’s Rodriguez echoed Alconada’s emphasis on sources for journalists. “Sometimes the most insignificant links can give you the greatest amount of information,” he said. However, investigation subjects themselves can often become sources, by creating Facebook or Instagram posts that depict lifestyles disproportionate to their legitimate income. “Through their use of social media, the corrupt themselves become sources.”

Clearly, none of the accused are going down without a fight against the journalists. “Mossack Fonseca called us ‘communists’ for ‘attacking capitalism.’ La Prensa never received any censorship pressure, but we were afraid of the possibility of multiple lawsuits from MF,” said Rodriguez. “But we recognized our fear might result in self-censorship and ignored it.”

“I’m so proud to have been part of this investigation.”

 

Ghazala Irshad is a journalist focused on diversity, women’s rights, refugees, Muslims, and the Middle East. She is also a social media strategist with experience in advertising and PR. Ghazala has eaten and Instagrammed her way around the world with the UAE-produced travel show Peeta Planet, tweeted the Arab Spring from Egypt, and taught photography and English to refugees from Southeast Asia to the Middle East. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Gawker, Roads & Kingdoms, and more.

SHARE