How African journalists helped crack the Panama Papers

The ongoing exposê of the Panama Papers is the most significant leak of compromising data since Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA. What few people realise is the vital role played by African journalists in the unravelling of this enormous trove of data.

The Panama Papers, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is a database of 214,000 offshore shell companies administered by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca on behalf of clients throughout the globe.

This 2.6 terabyte treasure trove contains more than 11 million documents, and reveals the secret business dealings of everyone from Vladimir Putin to the King of Saudi Arabia to Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa.

Led by the the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, more than 100 news organisations spent a year digging through the data before starting to release their first findings in April this year.

Because of the vast scope of the leak, journalists required specific knowledge at a country level to make sense of the data. Fourteen African investigative reporting teams contributed manpower to the effort. Their combined insights have uncovered evidence of corruption and illegal or unethical business relationships in nearly two dozen African countries.

At the core of these efforts, The African Network of Centres for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) has provided technological, legal and financial support to the African newsrooms, allowing them to make optimal use of this unique opportunity. ANCIR’s investigative lab (iLAB) has acted as a kind of nerve centre for the Panama Papers investigations in Africa.

“The iLAB team worked with the journalists to identify stories and helped them analyse the data, with input from legal and economics experts. We also provided access to other databases on illicit finances and corporate ownership.” explains Amanda Strydom, ANCIR managing editor. “Combining all this information often unearthed stories that would never have been possible using the Panama Papers database on its own.”

“The Panama Papers have exposed how normal and integral the use of legal and financial secrecy has become,” says ANCIR Editor, Khadija Sharife, “But a lot of our investigations involved using publicly accessible information to corroborate leaks as a strategy for teasing out confidential information from the mass of data. The ingenuity of investigative journalists meant that we were rarely at a loss.”

“ANCIR uses a fairly unique mix of forensic researchers and economic experts to help boost traditional investigative journalism, but the real ‘secret sauce’ in this project was the sheer size and scope of the international collaboration,” says ANCIR co-founder Justin Arenstein. “We had 17 journalists from 14 countries sharing information with each other for almost a year, without any leaks. This level of collaboration was only possible because of the network of trust that ANCIR has built over the past three years.”

For example in a previous collaboration with ICIJ, ANCIR seconded investigative technologist, Friedrich Lindenberg, to prove the World Bank displaced over 3.3 million people around the world to make way for ‘development projects’.

“Getting to the stage where something like Panama Papers is possible did not happen overnight. It has taken years of building the right technologies, liberating local data about company ownership and political networks, and then getting the best possible forensic researchers and financial experts in place,” says Arenstein.

And the Panama Papers have not yielded all their secrets yet. “We are currently working on several new stories that use data gleaned from the database,” says Strydom.

Apart from the social good unleashed by the Panama Papers project, it has also proved a new model for investigative journalism. These new tools give journalists the ability to directly challenge the (mis)behaviour of the most powerful people on the planet.

Just a decade ago, a database of 11 million documents would have been effectively impenetrable to journalists. No one story is worth a year of digging by hand, and the technology required to sift through that much data was beyond the budget of any newsroom on the planet.

That technology is now relatively cheap and widely available. Combined with the ubiquity of the Internet to coordinate efforts and the privacy enabled by encryption, it offers a recipe for a new paradigm in journalism.

This is journalism as judo. A few hundred journalists challenging some of the most powerful people and institutions on the planet. All that is required is one disgruntled employee at a shady law firm with access to data and another torrent of revelations will follow.

The guiding spirit behind the Panama Papers is the sharing of both data and skills. To see this in practice you can sign up to attend a live webinar on the 25th of May at 4pm South African time. The webinar is primarily aimed at data journalists, but anyone interested in the technology or the subject is welcome to attend.

The Panama Papers have had some immediate consequences. Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, prime minister of Iceland, stepped down in April when his undeclared assets were made public. Spain’s minister of industry, energy and tourism resigned for similar reasons.

I’m still skeptical whether the Panama Papers will lead directly to any major changes in either regime or corporate government. Gunnlaugsson is already back in parliament, for example. But at the very least these exposês have started a global conversation on the subject.

Edward Snowden’s revelations did not lead to the immediate dissolution of the NSA, but they focussed the world’s attention on the overreach by our security agencies. That is slowly leading to changes in laws and curtailment of policies of mass surveillance.

Politicians around the world have already begun to acknowledge the need for reform laws around anonymous corporate structures. Earlier this month at the Open Government Partnership Africa Regional Meeting, the South African government announced a National Action Plan that includes a commitment to collecting information on the beneficial owners of companies.

Whether this lip service will lead to any concrete change in South African politics or business is a matter for debate, but the fact that we are now talking publically about anonymous corporate structures is a huge step forward. It gives me hope that we can, eventually, hold our government and our corporations to account.

DISCLOSURE: This is part of a series of articles I’m writing at the invitation of Code for Africa. I retain editorial independence and the right to criticise the Code for Africa and any of its partners and affiliates.