ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker Guevara was invited to give a keynote speech at the 2016 Open Government Partnership Summit in Paris. Addressing an audience that included multiple heads of state, United Nations ambassadors and other top government officials, open data experts and advocates, she spoke about the Panama Papers, investigative journalism, press freedom and how collaboration can help the world face up to some of the enormous challenges it currently faces.
I am here representing 376 reporters from 80 countries who, for more than a year, shared a big secret.
It all started with an encrypted message. An anonymous source offered German reporters Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier access to 11.5 million files – the largest trove of secret financial information ever made available to journalists.
It was the kind of scoop that reporters are taught to keep to themselves and to guard fiercely; the kind of revelation that would make any reporter a superstar.
But instead of following instinct, tradition, and their own egos, these journalists decided to share their scoops. Not just with one or two colleagues, but with dozens of them. In fact, with hundreds of them. Not just in their own countries, but in countries across five continents.
And rather than race against one another they helped one another. They created a virtual newsroom that transcended the borders of their countries and the politics and the financial constraints of their own newsrooms. A space in which everyone was united by the same ideals of collaborative, investigative reporting in the public interest.
The reporters bonded over the task at hand: a story that was too important, too complex and too global for any individual journalist or media organization to tackle on their own.
You don’t build this sort of community overnight. It took 20 years for the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to develop the methodology and the trust that ultimately led to what today we know as the Panama Papers.
At ICIJ we call it radical sharing.
The challenges we faced also pushed us to reach out to other professions – including engineers, developers, data analysts – to unlock the mysteries hidden inside the millions of files.
The stories reveal greed and corruption at the highest levels of political and economic power, from prime ministers and presidents to leading banks and sports figures.
They expose how politicians and criminals took advantage of the secrecy sold by tax havens, a parallel universe that allows you to bypass the laws that all other citizens must follow.
It was those citizens who took to the streets in Reykjavik, in London and in Malta. In Iceland, protestors threw yogurt and eggs at the parliament building and ultimately forced their prime minister to resign.
More resignations, raids and arrests followed in dozens of countries around the world.
Today, eight months later, there are at least 150 criminal, civil, and regulatory investigations in 79 countries stemming from the Panama Papers revelations.
Tens of millions of dollars, more precisely $110 million, have been recovered by governments – and billions are being traced.
Europol just announced that it has found thousands of connections between the Panama Papers and cases in its own files on drug trafficking, human trafficking and Russian organized crime. It has also found 116 links to terrorism.
My team has visited many countries after the release of the Panama Papers investigation. And we have seen stricter laws in some places and greater transparency efforts in others, including a push for public registries of beneficial owners.
Before Panama Papers it was tough to interest the public and newspaper editors in tax havens.
Because, you know, tax havens are legal, they told us. Perfectly legal, some said.
Today citizens are asking “why are these offshore arrangements legal? Who made them legal?” and they want to know more. They have made the connection between legally-sanctioned global corruption and their own lives.
They have understood that because of that corruption they are poorer, their children’s schools are worse, and their retirement years will be harder.
Like a French reader, Sophie, who recently wrote to ICIJ, said “I am a little French woman and I must live with just 450 euros a month, and it’s hard. Thank you for saying out loud what everyone else is thinking.”
Despite the impact of the Panama Papers, we are under no illusions that the problem is fixed.
In our travels and in our reporting we continue to see the impunity enjoyed by large banks, law firms and other enablers of the secrecy world. We continue to find well-intentioned but grossly under-resourced government regulators, prosecutors’ offices, truth commissions and local assemblies. They are no match for the army of savvy and well-paid accountants, consultants, corporate lawyers and bankers advising the offshore industry.
Investigative journalists who uncover financial secrecy and corruption, including many Panama Papers reporters, are facing threats, intimidation, retaliation and legal harassment. This is happening in repressive countries with little press freedom, as well as in countries in Europe and elsewhere with long traditions of democracy.
In just a few days, the reporter and two whistleblowers who helped expose Luxembourg’s tax haven practices, an ICIJ investigation dubbed LuxLeaks, will stand trial for the second time in Luxembourg. Prosecutors there are seeking tougher punishment for the whistleblowers and a sentence for the investigative reporter who was acquitted in a first trial.
ICIJ considers this trial an affront to journalism and freedom of expression. Luxembourg is joining the Open Government Partnership today. It would be fully appropriate if protection of whistleblowers and journalists will be part of their commitment to OGP.
We are heartened also to see that freedom of expression and journalism is more and more an integral part of OGP’s mission.
Citizens around the world are demanding change. The disconnection between communities and political elites has never been greater. And that sense of insecurity and disenfranchisement is being exploited by demagogues and populists who are guilty of the same faults their followers denounce.
In the U.S., the working class voted for change and, so far, is getting a cabinet made up of billionaires and questionable characters. The president-elect himself, reportedly, has not paid federal taxes in years.
We live in a time of great political upheaval and uncertainty, but it’s also a time of opportunity.
Opportunity to rethink the way we work, just like the Panama Papers reporters changed their lone wolf ways and created a more efficient model of collaboration and trust.
Opportunity to use technology at a time of fake news and false prophets to create new networks of knowledge and information across professions, across ideologies, and across borders.
Opportunity to be better listeners of the communities we serve, to be more relevant and more aware, to rebuild trust.
In his manifesto, the source who leaked the Panama Papers and who calls himself John Doe, says that the magnitude of the Panama Papers revelations should shock us all awake. But when it takes a whistleblower to sound the alarm, it is cause for even greater concern. It signals, he says, that democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner.
So now, says John Doe, is the time for real action.
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