A leak of information and data, so unprecedented in its size that it dwarves every other major leak in recent times, put together, recently came to light in what is being called as the Panama Papers.
The biggest ever leak of secret information saw an anonymous source help the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), a German publication acquire some 2.6 terabytes of secretive data from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The law firm is fundamentally a production line, churning out anonymous registered companies which it then sells to individuals and companies around the world. Mossack Fonseca is the fourth-biggest offshore law firm in the world.
The 2.6 TB data trove includes nearly 40 years of records, information on over 210,000 companies in 21 offshore jurisdictions.
In an English-page of the German news publication, an excerpt from the most prominent story of the year so far reads:
The data provides rare insights into a world that can only exist in the shadows. It proves how a global industry led by major banks, legal firms, and asset management companies secretly manages the estates of the world’s rich and famous: from politicians, FIFA officials, fraudsters and drug smugglers, to celebrities and professional athletes.
The leak shows the ways in which the world’s elite hide their wealth by exploiting anonymous offshore tax jurisdictions.
Some of the prominent revelations made from the Panama Papers are:
- At least 12 current and former world leaders and 61 individuals linked to current and former world leaders in the trove of data, found to be dealing in shell firms to cover all tracks on their business activities, regardless of how shady they are.
- Twenty-three individuals known for supporting authoritative and suppressive regimes in North Korea, Zimbabwe, Iran, Syria and Russia have been clients of the offshore law firm, despite having sanctions imposed upon them for their actions.
- A key ranking member from football governing body FIFA’s ethics committee is among the leaked data.
- An offshore trial worth $2 billion leads back to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prominent Russian publication Vedomosti has its main story wherein Russian President press secretary claimed the leak was a “personal attack” on Putin.
- Ukraine’s President, Petro Prooshenko set up an offshore firm, secretively in the British Virgin Islands at a time when Ukrainian soldiers were being killed in a battle with Russian troops and pro-Moscow rebels within his country.
A Global Investigative Effort into the Panama Papers
Süddeutsche Zeitung shared the huge data trove the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a Washington-based group. The ICIJ has further reigned in the support and investigative assistance of several dozen media organizations in the world.
Altogether, some 400 journalists from over 100 media organizations spanning 80 countries from around the world have spent time researching the documents.
The leaked data was originally contained in a Mossack Fonseca database with individual folders for each shell firm. Each folder, contained e-mails, contracts, transcripts and scanned documents. Some folders had several thousand pages of information.
Notably, prominent world leaders who are involved in setting up offshore companies in tax havens include the current President of Argentina, the President of the UAE, Iceland’s Prime Minister, King of Saudi Arabia and President of Ukraine.
An excellent interactive page put together by the ICIJ covers them all, including dozens of other national leaders, politicians, their friends and relatives and officials who are involved.
A somewhat incredible interview featuring Iceland’s Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, facing the question of the offshore company is covered here.
The leak shows the impact that whistleblowers and investigative journalism can bring in a world where politicians, prominent athletes and billionaires hide their cash to evade taxes. Several prominent officials welcomed the leak, noting that they will perform investigations on their own and cross-reference records to ensure that they get to the bottom of the illegal dealings.
For instance, French President François Hollande thanked the whistleblowers and added:
All the information revealed will lead to investigations brought by the tax authorities and to legal proceedings.
Speaking to the BBC, foreign secretary Philip Hammond stated:
It’s always interesting when information like this leaks because it reminds people who are up to no good how fragile and how vulnerable they make themselves by indulging in this kind of activity.
Images from Shutterstock and ICIJ.