Why the Panama Papers matter
In May 2016, The Panama papers dropped.
Like those big moments in history, the ones where we remember what time of day it was, where we were, what we were doing, I remember sitting in a tiny cafe in Phnom Phen, legs crossed on a cushion on the floor, willing my laptop to charge in a dicey powerpoint slapped crookedly on the wall. I was working in Cambodia with a local charity organisation at the time, and to be honest, I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Politicians are corrupt, I thought, everyone knows that, hardly groundbreaking.
Maybe I was too cynical for my own good, maybe it was the unwavering naivety of a young girl raised exclusively in democratic countries with abundant human rights. But in the 3 years since those papers blew open the biggest financial and political scandals of recent times, the thought of them goes some way to chilling my bones. Perhaps now, having more life experience in my mind and having had my own threatening brushes with government censorship of photojournalists, I see the warning signs of the severe backlash against journalists who worked on the Panama Papers, and the concentration of it in those countries where press freedom is very limited. Not least, the assassination of Maltese journalist Daphe Caruana Galizia in October 2017.
In those sweaty afternoons in Cambodia, we spoke about what were the headlines of the international papers each day. ‘The face of the water buffalo’, one man said to me, shaking his head. He explained that the water buffalo sits in the water, and only when he stands, do you really see how large he is, and every time I’ve seen a water buffalo since, I’ve thought of those Panama Papers and that tiny village in the Cambodian countryside - a Cambodian equivalent to an iceberg tip.
Last year, Time Magazine’s ‘Person of The Year’ was dedicated to a series of investigatory journalists who were telling stories all around the world, amongst increasingly defiant and controlling governments. It seems true that in recent times, our world is becoming less liberal, less transparent, not more.
What are the Panama Papers?
On May 5, 2016, “John Doe” published a statement titled The Revolution Will Be Digitised, where he explained he made the files public to underline growing income inequality and financial corruption globally. His identity remains unknown to this day. Doe leaked the papers to German journalist Bastian Obermayer in 2014. The leaked documents contained identity information about the shareholders and directors of 214,000 shell companies set up by now defunct law firm Mossack Fonseca, making public billions of dollars hiding from international sanctions, election frauds, tax exemptions and money laundering from more than 80 countries around the world.
So, in short, a bunch of rich guys did some super shady (and in a lot of cases, illegal) shit with heaps of money, to make more money, and this was the paper trail.
In democratic countries, sometimes we can begin to think the rights of journalists to report facts is the norm, when in truth, 83% of the population of the world live in societies without access to free press or independent media.
Journalism has long been a check on the balance of power in democratic countries, and the widespread access to internet is providing severe challenges to authoritarian governments who have long been able to control the flow of information in their countries.