Happy Birthday, Panama Papers! And Why it Still Matters

Happy Birthday, Panama Papers! And Why it Still Matters

Will Fitzgibbon (photo by Allison Shelley)

By Will Fitzgibbon, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists – ICIJ

3 April was the third anniversary of the Panama Papers investigation.

We certainly celebrated at the Washington D.C. office of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

As a quick recap, the Panama Papers was a huge investigation by journalists who revealed how politicians, criminals and the big end of town piped money around the world to shell companies and banks.

The project revealed people from every continent who had avoided taxes, evaded taxes (that’s a crime), paid bribes or laundered money.

370 journalists from dozens of countries worked together for one year, in almost total secrecy, to examined 11.5 million documents from the offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca.

A whistleblower named John Doe gave the documents to journalists at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, who then shared them with ICIJ so that we could form a crack team of investigative journalists.

The first stories came out on 3 April, 2016. (Most of us didn’t get much sleep that night).

Since then, hundreds more journalists have joined the project (after all, why should just a few hundred journalists get all the fun?) and thousands of stories have been written.

Politicians resigned or have been thrown in jail, like the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan. Dozens of countries launched hundreds of investigations, probes or other official responses.

It’s been a wild ride.

For the third anniversary of the Panama Papers, ICIJ and its partners put our heads together again to quantify the impact of this ground-breaking project. One result: $1.2 billion recovered by governments from 22 countries.

That’s a huge amount, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

Some governments, for example, refuse to comment on what they have recovered thanks to the Panama Papers.

I also think that it would be wrong of us to think of the Panama Papers only in terms of numbers and money. Of course, capturing lost taxes, dismissing politicians caught with their pants down and sending wrong-doers to jail is important. Very important.

But some of the things I value most about the Panama Papers can’t be counted.

I’m talking about, on the one hand, what the Panama Papers investigation has done to help develop cross-border investigative journalism and, on the other hand, how it has helped change the public debate about wealth inequality, taxes and corporate greed.

The idea of having dozens, even hundreds, of reporters from different countries work together on the same story was not new by the time the Panama Papers came along.

It was precisely because ICIJ and many of its partners had worked together on previous projects, such as Lux Leaks, Swiss Leaks and Offshore Leaks, that Panama Papers was possible.

But the Panama Papers investigation was cross-border collaboration on steroids.

Never had so many journalists, from so many countries and working in so many languages, committed to the same project.

Almost 400 journalists agreed to keep it all a secret!

Since the Panama Papers, the word “collaboration” has taken over the world. It’s the new woke within journalism. Not just because it really is cool (how else would I have come to know the brilliant people at Krik so well?) but because working together leads to better stories and to more impact.

The other heartening result of the Panama Papers investigation is the change in people’s minds and people’s actions.

At a practical level, the Panama Papers clearly scared the $%*&! out of some people.

One detailed study from Colombia, for example, found that after the publication of the Panama Papers, taxpayers disclosed 15 times more assets held abroad.

The Panama Papers is now in popular culture and in the minds of people as a byword for inequality and for dodgy behavior.

I’ve talked to taxi drivers in Kenya about the Panama Papers. You can hear about the project on television series on Netflix. We’ll even soon have a star-studded Hollywood movie about it that features Meryl Streep.

The impact is undeniable, even if there is a lot more to be done. (The baddies are not going to stop that easily).

I’m looking forward to another Panama Papers anniversary and to many more cross-border collaborations among journalists so that the truth gets out there.

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