The Panama Papers: Politicians, Criminals and the Rogue Industry That Hides Their Cash
Organisation: International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) - Süddeutsche Zeitung - The Guardian - Le Monde and more than 100 other media partners (United States)
Publication Date: 04/11/2016
Size of team/newsroom:large
Entry on behalf of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Guardian, Le Monde and more than 100 other media partners.
Involving 2.6 TB of data and 11.5 million documents, The Panama Papers was the biggest leak and the largest cross-border investigation in journalism history. For one year, more than 370 reporters in about 80 countries dived into this massive trove of documents that exposed like never before how the offshore economy works. Inside the leaked files lay the secrets of the high-level clients of one of the world’s leading firms in the creation of offshore companies, Panama-headquartered Mossack Fonseca.
Included in the more than 210,000 companies in 21 jurisdictions were those connected to such activities as the ongoing Syrian war and the looting of resources in Africa and to individuals that included billionaires, sports players and other celebrities. There were also companies linked to 140 politicians in more than 50 different countries – including 12 current or former world leaders. Many of the stories were told visually in ICIJ’s The Power Players interactive, translated into five languages and published by more than a dozen media outlets.
The political reaction came almost immediately. Iceland’s prime minister resigned two days after our revelations, France put Panama back on its tax haven list and U.S. President Barack Obama called for international tax reform. Tax agencies and prosecutors from dozens of countries requested the data from the ICIJ and its partners and announced investigations. A member of FIFA’s ethics committee was forced to resign after it was found he was the accountant for other, now former, FIFA officials indicted by the FBI. The head of Transparency International in Chile, who was found to be linked to five secret offshore companies, also resigned. Swiss police conducted two raids, including one on the headquarters of UEFA, the body that oversees professional soccer in Europe. Large public protests took place in Iceland and outside the home of British Prime Minister, David Cameron, who came under intense pressure to resign after revelations that he was linked to the offshore world through his father, the late Ian Cameron. In an unprecedented move, Cameron later released six years of his tax records in an attempt to quell public outrage.
What makes this project innovative? What was its impact?
The ICIJ and Süddeutsche Zeitung, the newspaper that originally received the leak of information, coordinated the global investigation using custom-built platforms in the cloud —mostly based on open-source software— that allowed reporters to securely communicate among themselves, search the millions of files and explore Mossack Fonseca’s internal database in a visual way. The graphs produced were later embedded as graphics during publication. Over the course of the investigation these tools were improved, based on ongoing feedback from the reporters. One of these enhancements was a feature that allowed reporters to feed lists of names into the files to look for matches, saving hours in the research.
Our analysis exposed the key role of banks and other intermediaries as enablers of the system. More than 500 banks, their subsidiaries and branches, registered 15,600 shell companies with Mossack Fonseca. Süddeutsche Zeitung combed through thousands of invoices and found even more offshore entities connected to them. The data also exposed how clients searched out secrecy, jumping from one jurisdiction to the next if laws got more stringent.
The Guardian did an exhaustive cleaning of the offshore company names to compare them with a database from the British Land Registry that contained all properties owned by companies outside the UK. The analysis found that nearly one in 10 of the 31,000 tax haven companies that own British property were linked to Mossack Fonseca.
Different data teams also collaborated with each other, sharing methods and results during the reporting phase and creating interactive products that were shared for cross-publication. The ICIJ produced a “follow your own adventure” game with Le Monde’s developers to get readers in the shoes of a soccer player, a politician and a business executive who used offshore companies. The cases were built using real examples from the leaked files.
Technologies used for this project:
The data teams of the partner media organizations analyzed in-depth the records of almost 40 years of offshore activity. The data was as recent as December 2015. But first, the ICIJ data unit had to reconstruct Mossack Fonseca’s internal database using reverse engineering techniques. Every name was also associated with a country through a semi-automatic process that extracted these identifications from addresses or tagged them using geolocation.
- For data extraction and analysis: Talend Open Studio for Big Data, SQL Server, PostgreSQL, Python (nltk, beautifulsoup, pandas, csvkit, fuzzywuzzy), Google Maps API, Open Street Maps API, Microsoft Excel, Tesseract. ICIJ open-sourced the code of its document processing chain. “Extract” is a cross-platform command line tool for parellelised, distributed content-analysis: https://github.com/ICIJ/extract
- For the collaborative platforms: Linkurious, Neo4j, Apache Solr, Apache Tika, Blacklight, Oxwall and MySQL
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