April 19, 2016
This essay was originally published in the Guardian.
The stark limitations of individual nation-state governments facing a world of problems have been glaringly apparent for many years. But perhaps never more so than with the recent publication of the Panama Papers by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — of which I am the founder — as well as the Germany newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, the Guardian and over 100 other news organizations around the world.
Based on a year-long analysis of 11.5 million leaked records by more than 370 journalists in 76 countries, revealing "214,488 offshore entities connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories," including 12 current or former world leaders and 128 other public officials around the world, we now know in intricate detail what we've always cynically but correctly assumed. That, at the least, some of the world's wealthiest, most powerful people have illegally hidden their money offshore and avoided taxes, or worse, laundered dirty money in all manner of illicit transactions, including bank fraud, political bribery, drug trafficking, terrorism, and business crimes and corruption. The founder and president of Global Financial Integrity, Raymond Baker, a decade ago aptly described the phenomenon of offshore dirty money as "capitalism's Achilles heel."
Of course, the offshore jurisdictional dimension of capital flows is only part of the story. The great irony of the Panama Papers may be that the largest "leak" in the history of journalism was made possible because of the constantly advancing computer data technologies — those very same technologies that day in and day out also facilitate titanic financial transactions across the world, regardless of their legitimacy or legality. As my co-author Bill Allison and I noted in "The Cheating of America," our 2001 Center for Public Integrity book, "The combination of offshore banks and cyberspace is the ultimate elixir to tax evaders and others."
But despite the disturbing, largely lawless nature of what sometimes transpires in both cyberspace and within the numerous, less regulated, offshore jurisdictions, unfortunately, it is hardly surprising. For ultimately, as W.H. Auden once wrote, "Evil is unspectacular and always human."
What is remarkable and indeed, unprecedented about the epic Panama Papers project, however, is the yearlong, discreet and embargoed investigative collaboration between 370 journalists and their respective news organizations throughout the world. Or, more broadly, the four, epic-sized, financial, tax-related, leaked documents and subsequent investigations in recent years led by Gerard Ryle and Marina Walker Guevara, the director and deputy director, respectively, of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — Secrecy for Sale (approximately 100,000 leaked records), Luxembourg Leaks (about 28,000 pages of confidential documents available to a team of more than 80 journalists from 26 countries); Swiss Leaks (a team of journalists from 45 countries examined confidential HSBC records received via Le Monde "associated with more than 100,000 individuals and legal entities from more than 200 nations.") and the largest cache of all, the Panama Papers.
The technological feat of so many journalists obtaining, organizing, disseminating and publishing news stories all over the planet is even more impressive if one considers that, historically, journalists have not been known for cooperating with competing news organizations.
Obviously, this important work was neither feasible nor fathomable in the last century, before people even used the phrase “big data,” let alone possessed the technical knowledge and understanding to actually create the platforms to facilitate such an investigation.
It was these kinds of exciting, new, technological changes, in particular the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, that spurred me to found the ICIJ. What captured my imagination was what suddenly now might be possible, moving video, audio, text across the world quickly, easily, inexpensively. Cameras were getting smaller, the video and sound quality sharper, but more broadly all forms of communication — from spoken to online written to still and moving visual and audio information — were widely and instantly accessible, electronically, across borders, and at very little relative cost.
My epiphany about “the possible” future of international, investigative reporting occurred in, of all places, Moscow, just months after the historic dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was there while participating in my first international investigative journalism conference in September 1992 that I had the idea of trying to find a new way for investigative reporters to collaborate across borders throughout the world, tracking the uses and abuses of public and private power in a mutually constructive way. It took me five years, many deep conversations with some of the iconic sages within journalism about “the possible” and, of course, sufficient funding to create the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which was born in October 1997, as a project within the Center for Public Integrity.
And while journalistic publications traditionally have been (and still are substantially) tethered to geographical locations — cities, states, languages, cultures — and other logistical local coverage considerations, information itself in the Internet Age suddenly was not and is not. All of the past 26 International Consortium projects published since 2000 have involved thousands of pages of often disparate, public or private records, collectively examined by leading journalists from multiple countries. What is distinctive about the Panama Papers project is its unprecedented scale in terms of data, documents, number of participating journalists and co-publishing news organizations and its overall public impact and potential policy reverberations.
But from day one in 1997, there was one, simple operating principle within the Consortium: collaboration, collaboration, collaboration! But we are still only at the dawn of a new age. And amid a world of debilitating political dysfunction with the most dire potential human consequences, the crucial democratic concept of public accountability cannot and should not be narrowly confined by local or national borders, or the rigid strictures, orthodoxies, conceits and insecurities of traditional journalism.