The Panama Papers

General Interest

by Kenneth Sawdon

“Biggest leak in the history of data journalism just went live, and it’s about corruption.” (Edward Snowden)

It is too early to really see the depth and repercussions of the now named “Panama Papers,” but it may be as influential to global economics as Snowden’s leak was to Western privacy. The Panama Papers are records obtained from an anonymous source concerning the Mossack Fonsecas company, an international company management organization. The company appears to be violating sanctions, promoting tax evasion, and laundering money for politicians, criminals, and many, many other wealthy people and organizations.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung (the original contact for the documents’ source), working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media companies, is claiming to have 2.6 terabytes of data related to corrupt business dealings by wealthy people across the globe. A week ago, even years ago, it would have been uncontroversial to suggest that people with power utilize off-shore banking, shell companies, and legal loopholes to secure their wealth. We already know about the LIBOR scandal, where bankers illegally and unethically adjusted rates to remove risk and guarantee profits. In the same way, Snowden did not really break the news of government spying–the Five Eyes was already known to some citizens–but his whistleblowing brought actual documented evidence to the world.

But, this new leak does reinforce two ideas: first, “the powers that be” believe that corruption is par for the course, and second, whistleblowing and investigative journalism are necessary tools to bring truth to the people.

The use of tax havens, proxy companies, bribery, by politicians, crime lords, and others is not an intellectual freedom matter. Except, perhaps, where there exists conflicts of interest. What is of interest for IF is the case as it relates to leaked information and journalism.

Süddeutsche Zeitung has been collecting information from their source since the beginning of 2015, and worked with “around 400 journalists from more than 100 media organizations in over 80 countries” to organize and analyze the data dump they were given.  To analyze the ~11.5 million documents they had to use text and data mining techniques.

First, the data had to be systematically indexed to make searching through this sea of information possible. To this end, the Süddeutsche Zeitung used Nuix, the same program that international investigators work with. Süddeutsche Zeitung and ICIJ uploaded millions of documents onto high-performance computers. They applied optical character recognition (OCR) to transform data into machine-readable and easy to search files. The process turned images – such as scanned IDs and signed contracts – into searchable text.

Obviously, this was an important step which has made an analysis that could have taken a decade, again, it is 2.6 terabytes and ~11.5 million documents, into a more reasonable year (including fact-checking and other investigative measures). The scale of this leak is unprecedented, owing to both the pervasiveness of this corruption and the meticulous record-keeping.

Normally, scandals are in the public eye for a short time and then people lose interest. But, similar to the Snowden whistleblowing, I expect this to be drawn out as the many, many small stories come to light. This week the Süddeutsche Zeitung website is highlighting Iceland, FIFA, as well as a video on the shell companies’ links to war and poverty, an interactive guide to power players, and a visualization of the Mossack Fonsecas’ network. These stories are just the tip of the story, and journalists have many more to bring forth. Notably, no politicians (or other high level personalities) have been named from some countries that would be expected to take part. For example, no one from the United States has yet been named–this may be a big story revealed later to ensure long-term interest in the scandal.

Another reason I believe the hundreds of journalists involved with this believe in the story’s long term value is the care that has been taken to ensure the story broke correctly. World news has been, relatively, quiet, and this was released at an opportune time to take social media in a big way. Plus, enough facts (and sleek animations and infographics) have been released to show that something big is happening, but little enough to keep the reader’s appetite whet. But, really, it is unsurprising that ~400 journalists from over 100 respected media organizations know how to handle a story (as well as privacy and text mining tools).

Panama Papers Infographic

Barring this being an impressive belated April Fool’s Day prank, this story has the potential to be *the* story of 2016. It could be proof of the global financial corruption that some people always assumed, but did not know the extent of. It is also more proof that whistleblowers and responsible investigative journalism are necessary tools to keep the powerful in check, and must be encouraged and protected.


Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. He loves wading through policy and legislation, especially intellectual property issues and professional association rhetoric. You can find and connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.


  • Thanks Kristin!
    Definitely an interesting comic. It points to a thing I’m thankful for: responsible journalists. The people that are willing to sift through huge documents of information and only bring to light the real issues, while protecting reasonable privacy.

    I remember that while Snowden worked with Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitra, and others, a friend of mine hated Snowden under the assumption that the leak would result in the deaths of legitimate foreign agents. To my knowledge, this didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because the reporters responsibly released the information they were given. The information Snowden leaked was not given out en masse, and I doubt the Panama Papers will as well.

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