The data behind the Panama Papers was obtained from an anonymous source by Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung and shared with media worldwide by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
( AFP/CHRISTOF STACHE
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I’m Brooke Gladstone. The Panama Papers, the result of more than a year of secret labor shared among hundreds of journalists in dozens of countries, is an unprecedented feat of journalistic coordination. It's also a project that unfolded very differently, depending on where in the world those journalists were located. So we called up a few of them. Apologies in advance for the bad phone lines.
For some, the effort was bedeviled by the repressive regimes under which they live. In Tunisia, the online magazine Inkyfada exposed the involvement of Mohsen Marzouk, cofounder of the current president's political party in offshore holdings. But soon after those reports were published, hackers infiltrated Inkyfada's website and changed the details, including the name Marzouk to Marzouki, Marzouki being Tunisia's former president and an opponent of the current administration. Eventually, the newspaper had to shut down its website.
SANA SBOUI: And we had really violent answers from the, the public who was asking where are the articles.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That’s Sana Sboui, an Inkyfada reporter.
SANA SBOUI: Is, is there someone trying to buy your silence, are you making some deals with some people to not put the names out?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and a South African-based news network have coordinated with Inkyfada to ensure its reports can be read, somewhere. Meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders has condemned the attacks on Inkyfada’s website.
SANA SBOUI: And having those organizations standing next to us and saying that they are supporting us, that’s really important because it sends the public a special message.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It also sends a message to journalists in Tunisia that their profession still matters.
SANA SBOUI: Something that really touched me in this whole process is that today we are speaking about journalism who is collapsing and no more professionalism and everyone running after the buzz, when actually we manage almost 400 journalists all around the world. We don’t know each other and we manage to keep it secret and we manage to get into the deadlines and to make it happen. There are still journalists who cares about the way they do their work, who are really professional, who collaborate together. So that was amazing, to see that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Egyptian journalist Hisham Allamand was pressured by government officials not to publish his stories from the leak but he went ahead, revealing that former President Hosni Mubarak’s son was involved in a secret offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands. Hisham said that the global network of journalists working on the Panama Papers served as a shield against Egyptian censors.
HISHAM ALLAMAND: Because in case if you are threatened or for some reason get hurt, your colleagues every day are going to continue the work and they will publish your stories. At least you are not standing alone. Your story is going to be shown globally and everybody will, will read it, everybody will see it and the impact cannot be seized inside your country. Here we use that authority that they are just [ ? ][ ? ] situation. Okay, we will investigate it, we will check the documents, and after a couple of weeks everybody’s forgetting the story. Now nobody can forget it or ignore it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Argentine journalists at the paper La Nacion weren’t up against the censors but under the terms of the Consortium for nearly four months they were unable to publish what could be one of the biggest scoops in the paper’s history. On December 8th, just two days before President-elect Mauricio Macri took office, they learned that he was listed as a director of an offshore company in the Bahamas. Macri had been campaigning on an anticorruption platform, vowing to clean up the mess he said was left by the previous president. La Nacion investigations editor Hugo Alconada Mon recalled when one of his reporters, Iván Ruiz, told him the news.
HUGO ALCONADA MON: The source of this information was providing more documents every week, so it was coming like in waves, you know? So every two weeks you should be rechecking all the names that you had already searched on the database again. And on December the 8th, just two days before he took office, he sent us an email and said, hey guys, I found President Macri. And the first thing I thought, it was [BLEEP] this is going to be great.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not only couldn’t they publish, Hugo and his team had to share their findings with nearly 400 other journalists and hope they wouldn't break the story first.
HUGO ALCONADA MON: If you believe in miracles, that was a miracle, because you had to keep 400 journalists with their mouths shut. You know, that’s, that’s unbelievable, but it happened. It was wonderful.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s also wonderful, he says, is that the Panama Papers gave reporters the chance to confirm what they’d already suspected, that the rich and powerful were having a party at the expense of their constituents.
HUGO ALCONADA MON: This is like when kids are, you know, playing in a dark room and you suddenly enter that room, turn on the lights and you end up, you know, finding that a guy is jumping over a bed, another one is, you know, on a window and the other one is throwing his shoe and you say, what – what’s going on here, you know? It was like that, that we were able to expose, to turn on the light in Panama, not only in Panama but around the world.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Kenya though, reporters and the public had a more tempered response to the revelations. Journalist Jacqueline Kubania found that one of her country's highest judges was linked to 11 shell companies, despite Kenyan constitutional law stating that it's illegal for judges, being state officers, to open offshore bank accounts. But, she said, when you live in Kenya –
JACQUELINE KUBANIA: You get used to the fact that –
VOICEOVER: - you get used to the fact that corruption is a fact of life. It’s something that we struggle with maybe more often than people in other places. So I would not actually be surprised if a bigger story broke next week that will totally eclipse what we are doing with the Panama Papers right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In Ukraine, the revelation that the nominally anticorruption President Petro Poroshenko may have used an offshore firm to stash assets and avoid taxes has been met with a surprising amount of debate.
NATALIYA GUMENYUK: It’s really a top story of the week. It’s discussed everywhere, you know, in the business circles, by the media. I hear the people, you know, really somewhere discussing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Nataliya Gumenyuk is the cofounder of the Ukrainian news site Hromadske TV, one of the independent media outlets that have sprung up in the two years since Poroshenko was elected. While what Poroshenko did may or may not have been illegal, Gumenyuk believes that the fact that there is even a discussion shows that Ukraine has entered a new era.
NATALIYA GUMENYUK: The last year before 2013 it was authoritarian state with media controlled by the big business close to power and by the government with the censorship, when the government is more or less running and owning all the assets of the country. And the previous presidents, they were known for stealing 100 millions of dollars. And those kind of investigations, they were usually, you know, an issue for the professionals, for independent media, maybe for some of the political opposition, but you wouldn't have discussed that, you know, and the public would be really surprised because that was an issue.
But now, in our case, it’s the issue for every talk show. There is a huge change that for me obviously is a sign that demand for the public servants, for the presidents are not just very high but more or less normal, as it should be in the society where people care about the rule of law and want their politicians to be accountable, which definitely was not ever the case.