Technology and Investigative Journalism: Uncovering Panama Papers

By : |April 9, 2016 0

Panama Papers took the world by storm this week. It was a sudden blow and a hard one at that. Revealing a global network of hidden assets and global tax evasion stretching back over four decades, many state leaders, business tycoons, sportsmen and celebrities have been busted and are still reeling from the blow. The beast is yet to cast its full net with its humongous collection of leaked documents from the Panamanian legal firm Mossack Fonseca.

But today we aren’t discussing who all and what all of the story? The Web is full of all such nitty-gritty and only time will tell how many will bow down this time.

There is another facet to this story. Investigative Journalism in the times of data-driven digital age.



Panama Papers didn’t happen overnight. The whistleblower project began in late 2014 and the data from which the stories were scraped together included almost five million emails, three million database files, and more than two million PDFs. International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), based in Washington played the pivotal role coordinating reporters around the world, who collaborated and shared information in order to maximise the impact of the stories they were pursuing.

It all began with an anonymous source contacting Bastian Obermayer, an investigative journalist with German newspaper SüddeutscheZeitung, which had previously run a story about Mossack Fonseca, via encrypted chat offering data which would “make these crimes public”. The source wanted to remain anonymous and communicated via encrypted media only.

However, once Süddeutsche Zeitung gleaned over some of the information, it contacted the ICIJ for help. Founded in 1997 by US journalist Chuck Lewis, ICIJ is a global network of more than 190 investigative journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories with a focus on issues that do not stop at national frontiers, such as cross-border crime, corruption and the accountability of power.

Rest as they say is history. Hundreds of journalists began sifting through the Panama Papers last autumn under the guidance of ICIJ head, Tralee-born Gerard Ryle, with work accelerating as they approached the agreed worldwide publication date of April 3rd. Journoshad access to a high- security protected search engine, which ICIJ’s software developers built specially for the leaked documents. The URL for the search engine was shared via encrypted email with dozens of different media organisations, including the BBC, the Guardian, and Le Monde. The site also included a real-time chat system, allowing journalists from different countries to share information and help with translations.

Ryle advised reporters from all the participating media outlets to “go crazy, but tell what’s in the public interest for your country”.The media establishments involved in the Panama Papers have specified that do not intend to release the full dataset to the public, on the basis that this would needlessly expose innocent private individuals’ personal information.

“We’re not WikiLeaks,” Ryle told Wired magazine this week, referring to the organisation founded by Julian Assange which has previously released data in full. “We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly.”

Encryption and anonymity are being used today on a wider scale than ever, making it safer for whistleblowers to come forward. Secure collaborative systems such as the one built by the ICIJ encourage journalistic co-operation and collaboration across international borders.

The teamwork of more than 370 reporters from almost 80 countries coming together to trawl the documents and share their findings, the Panama Papers project exemplifies how new technological tools and network effects are reinventing investigative journalism, making it fit for purpose in the 21st century.

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