As the traditional media business model crumbles, leading to massive layoffs in newsrooms—with investigative journalism teams often among the first casualties—collaboration is becoming indispensable. Networks with few actual employees but the ability to pool expertise and spread the expenses of costly investigative endeavors across a wide range of partners are making vast and complex investigations possible.
This week revealed a remarkable example of one such effort. About 100 media outlets around the world—including Suddeütsche Zeitung, the Guardian, BBC, Le Monde, German broadcasters NDR and WDR, the Miami Herald, Univision, and many others—began publishing reports exposing a sprawling worldwide system of offshore companies that enable financial secrecy.
Collectively known as the Panama Papers, the reports were based on a leak of over 11.5 million records—perhaps the largest data leak in history. Spanning 40 years, from 1977 through 2015, the leak provides an unprecedented window into the money that flows through the dark corners of the global financial system.
Among those exposed by the leak are wealthy and powerful figures from around the world. The reports shed light on the offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders; the hidden financial dealings of 128 other public officials; boldface names in finance, sports, and entertainment; and 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government. The reports also show that hundreds of banks—and their subsidiaries and branches—registered nearly 15,600 companies with Mossack Fonseca, the Panama-based law firm from which the leaked records came.
When used in law-abiding fashion, most of the services provided by the offshore industry are completely legal—simply being mentioned in the leak in no way implicates a person as guilty of a crime. But the documents show how banks, law firms, and other players often fail to adhere to the legal requirements meant to prevent the activities of clients from drifting beyond what is legal. The reports also show how loopholes in the current regulations are being exploited, and call into question the workings of the offshore tax-haven system itself.
These reports were made possible by a yearlong collaboration of more than 370 journalists from 76 countries under the auspices of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The resulting impact underlines the importance of investigative journalism and its role in keeping societies open by revealing wrongdoing at all levels, and exposing structural deficiencies that must be addressed.
This Panama Papers project exemplifies the importance of collaboration between investigative journalists across borders. Its complexity goes beyond the need to analyze and verify huge volumes of documents. Due to the sheer number of countries involved, the story demands the unifying strength of a worldwide network. This is why Suddeütsche Zeitung, which originally received the records from an anonymous source, contacted ICIJ, with which it had collaborated on previous stories.
Work on a project like the Panama Papers validates the concept of international networks like ICIJ, which marshal manpower and expertise, pool and share resources, and distribute costs. It also demonstrates the importance and power of harnessing technological tools, like secure collaboration platforms that allow far-flung reporters to share leads and ideas, and software for searching and analyzing vast amounts of data quickly.
The Panama Papers are proving wrong those who prematurely forecasted that the digital revolution would bring about the weakening of independent journalism, and with it the ability of reporters to hold powerful actors to account. On the contrary, the digital era is presenting new and exciting opportunities for journalism to play its role of watchdog—only now, with the capacity to have an impact across the globe.