BY IAN SCHADE
Earlier this month, the “Panama Papers,” a staggering 11.5 million confidential documents detailing information of more than 214,000 offshore shell companies, were leaked by an anonymous source. High-ranking officials from several countries were implicated in potentially illegal and unethical financial activities as a result. Outside of these documents, accusations of corruption have hit the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff; the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma; Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak; the former president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter; several officials in the Justice and Development Party of Turkey; and the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, among others.
Unfortunately, corruption is endemic to a large number of societies around the world. Few in Russia or Ukraine, for example, seem surprised by the allegations, and most don’t seem to care much.
But what is interesting is the hack itself. Mossack Fonseca, the law firm and corporate service provider from which the incriminating documents were leaked, is claiming that the release of the information was not an insider leak, but the result of a hack, and that they know which country the hack came from. Ramon Fonseca, a co-founder of the firm, has also said he’s not allowed to disclose his knowledge of the attack’s origin.
The fact that few details of the hack are known and that access to the files it released is extremely limited raises a series of questions. Namely, how reliable is this information? For better or for worse, the reality that this information wasn’t published in a Wikileaks-style release makes it difficult for anyone to verify the veracity of journalists’ statements. Might some news media outlets have selectively covered the story? Because news coverage is only focusing on a handful of the 11.5 million financial and legal records, at least so far, we automatically know that some narrative is being made over another, intentionally or not. What are other possible narratives, or what have different media organizations chosen not to say?
This apparently selective focus is further implied by the near-universal attacks on Putin, despite the absence of his name on any of the documents. In a wave of early reporting in April, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung’s home page in English prominently featured a story detailing how several of Putin’s friends have gained fabulous wealth with Putin’s help as their top page article. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and his holding company have received relatively little coverage, at least in the English-language press.
The Süddeutsche Zeitung has also declared it won’t provide the full set of documents to law enforcement agencies. It is understandable why the newspaper wouldn’t want to release the trove to the general public, but why not to prosecutors or tax collectors? If the organization was impartial and sincerely wanted investigations initiated against those involved, why not share this vital information with the relevant authorities? Why is a newspaper better equipped to decide who should be investigated than the investigators? What if, for example, unbeknownst to journalists, there are names in the papers that match up to names in the U.S. Treasury’s investigations? Consider a more extreme example: what if there are connections to Islamic State group shell companies that journalists aren’t aware of? Or to cartel, mafia, or human trafficking-related shell companies? Or, on the other side of the spectrum, to charitable organizations? Where are the names of the “good guys?” Also, why do most names listed belong to politicians? Questions like these make one speculate about the narrative journalists are trying to create and what has been left unsaid.
Another question worth asking, based on the information released from the Papers, is: how is everyone implicated connected, besides through wealth and Mossack Fonseca? How did all these leaders, high-ranking officials, and their families find out about this company? Why did so many high-profile individuals work through this one specific company? Were there people associated with Mossack Fonseca getting in touch with these public figures somehow? This seems unlikely, but would be incredibly interesting if true. Was it through word of mouth, from corrupt officials talking to each other about how to hide their wealth? If this is the case, it would also imply that officials were giving each other corruption advice transnationally. From a social networks perspective, answers to these questions would be fascinating, as they would uncover a global network that collaborated to stash away billions of dollars.