Award-winning investigative reporter Minna Knus Galan of the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE told colleagues at the ECPMF Dataharvest Freedom of Expression debate that she had received requests for information and warnings from the tax office.
Worried that they would search her home, she told her teenage children: ”If they come when I am not here, you should take out your smartphone and film them. Film everything they do!” And although she sounds light-hearted, she admitted to the workshop in, Mechelen, Belgium that she feels she has been put under pressure for doing a good job as a journalist.
Knus Galan, who works for the MOT TV programme, discovered more than 300 Finnish businesses involved in tax avoidance schemes through the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
She is the only Finnish reporter on the global team of journalists recruited through the ICIJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in order to harvest news stories from the mass of leaked data. ICIJ’s Mar Cabra, in an interview with the ECPMF, explained how the multi-national effort was co-ordinated.
Journalists used an open source dating app to create their own social network. They used it to make contacts and share information and leads across national boundaries. And they also used it as a private channel of communication to keep the secret of the massive leak and keep the source confidential.”
Thanks to this unprecedented worldwide collaboration, 140 politicians in more than 50 countries have been named and shamed for tax dodging.
They include twelve current or former heads of state. For example, the Prime Minister of Iceland Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson had connections to an offshore company with his wife. When it was revealed, people came out onto the streets and two days after the publication he resigned.
Explaining how the journalists uncovered significant names in the vast mass of data, Cabra admits it was “hit and miss”. She cites the Spanish sports writer Marco Garcia Rey who decided to input the names of famous footballers. He tapped in ‘Lionel Messi’ and scored a hit right away.
Keeping the secret of the investigation until teams in all the different countries were ready to publish at once proved a great challenge. Yet even though all the different news organisations are usually rivals, they all co-operated and no-one broke ranks to produce a “scoop”. Cabra explains: ”No-one wanted to be the weakest link. We all knew this would have a greater impact if we all published together”.
The source of the leaks has been named as “John Doe”, an American nickname for ‘Everyman”, or “Joe Bloggs”. He (or she) is protected by having a minimal number of contacts and constantly changing encryption systems, according to Bastian Obermayer at the Süddeutsche Zeitung in Germany. Keeping that secret adds a further burden of pressure to the journalists who are in contact with the source, since the tax authorities in all nations have now been alerted and require more information. To relieve this pressure, and to make it easier for journalists working outside the ICIJ to access the Panama Papers, they have released the Mossack Fonseca database in https://offshoreleaks.icij.org
Stairway to tax heaven
To make the labyrinthine world of offshore tax avoidance easier for ordinary people to understand, the ICIJ has devised a computer game with three characters, the international footballer Juan Penalti, the politician called (naturally!) Polly Tissien and the business executive Edward von Kronen. By selecting a character and playing the game to the end, you can discover all the tricks and traps that lead you to an offshore haven where you can amass wealth without paying any taxes.
'Leak to us'
Still the serious work continues. The first publication on 3 April 2016 was just the beginning. Since then, almost a hundred journalists have been added to the Panama Papers team, bringing the total number to more than 500. The new recruits contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists by email email@example.com (the team works only with journalists who work for an established media organisations). More leaks are welcome, and through the ‘Leak to us” tab on the ICIJ website. Whistleblowers can access the SecureDrop server in total anonymity.
ICIJ is a charity and does not accept money from any national government. So, says Cabra, they are limiting the number of new journalists who can join: “We want everybody to have proper training in how to use the documents“, she explains the procedure.