The massive investigative release of the so-called “Panama Papers” last April exposing more than 200,000 secret off-shore bank accounts of the rich and powerful around around the globe “changed how we think about our craft, and how we collaborate with each other,” said David Kaplan, director of the public-interest association Global Investigative Journalism and moderator of an EWC International Media Conference panel of journalists who had worked on the project.
“Because the media has been hollowed out in so many ways, collaboration is more important than ever,” Kaplan said. The new buzzwords, he said, are data analysis and cross-border reporting, which were the secrets to the success of this project.
Working in secrecy, journalists from 107 media organizations in 80 countries analyzed some 11.5 million leaked documents from a Panama law firm exposing the accounts. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which had received the data, required that to be part of the investigation, news agencies had to agree to two terms and conditions: Publish everything on the same day as other organizations, and share everything with the other investigators via a secure search engine.
Complete secrecy was expected, and for eight months, reporters spend late nights and weekends investigating their regional data. Everyone published their initial reports on April 3, along with supporting documents. Kaplan said coordinating a global same-day release of the news amplified the impact of regional discoveries.
Ritu Sarin, executive editor of news and investigations at the India Express newspaper, led the India investigation. Sarin said the most difficult part was “the time between sending out your requests for comments and the time of publication. That’s when the phone calls start coming in.” Other challenges included accessing the data in a timely manner and setting up an office team. “You want a team of long distance runners because we were eight months away from the embargo date,” Sarin said. She said she also had to convince her paper to invest in senior staff, and “not to expect us to do anything else.”
The documents in India’s case were anything but static, said Sarin. In many cases they they were missing such key identifying information as addresses and passport numbers. And even the documents that did contain all the necessary data to pursue investigations were several hundred pages long.
“The Panama Papers is still a very live story for us,” she said. “Investigating offshore accounts is like peeling the skin of an onion, you have to keep digging deeper.” Sarin said the challenge now for her team is keeping track of the stories as they break. Just the day before the panel, she said, she got a promising new lead from someone in the defense sector.
Compared to the rest of the world, the news website Malaysiakini in Kuala Lumpur “had a disappointing experience with Panama Papers,” said Assistant News Editor Aidila Razak. She said that as a small organization with limited staff, they could not assign a dedicated team to the project, “so we decided to focus just on political actors and their known proxies.” The data were just a starting point. After that, she said, “it’s a matter of understanding the context of the data, and what can we add to it.”
The Malaysia data in the Panama Papers search engine was static, says Razak, and there wasn’t much to work with. That meant reporters had to a lot more research outside the search engine. In a country where many people have similar names, a big challenge was confirming identities. In one instance, she says, “we were certain that evidence pointed to a sitting member of parliament. When we contacted him for comment, he told us ‘as soon as you publish the story, I will sue you, since you cannot prove that it was me.’” Despite all the digging, said Razak, they didn’t uncover much; mainly people with business interests who wanted to set up offshore accounts, which is not illegal in Malaysia.
Another difficulty, she said, was the timing: “The story was eclipsed by a political scandal involving more than $1 billion from a state investment fund that appeared in the Malaysian prime minister’s personal bank accounts. That was way bigger news than what we found in the Panama Papers.”
Wahyu Dhyatmika, an investigative reporter with Tempo magazine in Indonesia, said the Panama Papers came to him as an already established cross-border investigative project. It was Tempo‘s first experience working on a project of this scale, and the most difficult part of the investigation, he says, was confirming all the findings within the strict ICIJ timeline. “But without confirmation, we cannot publish the story,” he said.
The collaborative aspect of the investigation was vital to the Tempo’s success, said Dhyatmika: “We missed a couple of details that were pointed out by other reporters on the project.” But in the end, “we were part of a good instant global story. Breaking news on the same day around the world boosted the prominence of the story and expanded the impact.”