Truthdigger of the Week: The Panama Papers Whistleblower
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.
The whistleblower who gave journalists 11.5 million documents from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca in order to publicize how the world’s wealthy hide their riches has done an immeasurable service to our global society.
The documents, now known as the Panama Papers, contain details about shell companies, money laundering and other crimes (click here for explanations of these terms) committed via loopholes that provide “an unprecedented look at how the world’s rich and powerful, from political leaders to celebrities to criminals, use tax havens to hide their wealth.”
Below is a description of the leak from Süddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper that received the data:
Over a year ago, an anonymous source contacted the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and submitted encrypted internal documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that sells anonymous offshore companies around the world. These shell firms enable their owners to cover up their business dealings, no matter how shady.
In the months that followed, the number of documents continued to grow far beyond the original leak. Ultimately, SZ acquired about 2.6 terabytes of data, making the leak the biggest that journalists had ever worked with. The source wanted neither financial compensation nor anything else in return, apart from a few security measures.
The data provides rare insights into a world that can only exist in the shadows. It proves how a global industry led by major banks, legal firms, and asset management companies secretly manages the estates of the world’s rich and famous: from politicians, Fifa officials, fraudsters and drug smugglers, to celebrities and professional athletes.
While some may assert that many of us already knew that the rich often find ways to avoid paying taxes, the Panama Papers have given journalists and the public a look at the mechanisms that allow this form of corruption to prevail across the globe. And perhaps more importantly, the papers, to put it simply, have named names. Among them are the president of Argentina, friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, relatives of Syria’s Bashar Assad, China’s Xi Jinping, Azerbaijan’s royal family—the list goes on and on.
And when you consider that the few names that have been released by the 400 journalists at over 100 media organizations sifting through the data have already led to the prime minister of Iceland’s resignation, as well as to calls for David Cameron to follow in his footsteps, the importance of the leak starts to take shape.
At a time when international income inequality is reaching record levels and protests against it have spread from the Middle East to Europe, the United States and beyond, the Panama Papers serve as proof that the unrest we are witnessing is rooted in the uber-rich’s disregard for the rest. Despite their attempts to sugarcoat them, their underhanded dealings reveal their understanding that their excess wealth, no matter how it was gained, is something to be hidden away because it contributes to the destitution of others. As Clark Gascoigne, director of the Financial Accountability and Corporate Transparency Coalition, has noted, tax avoidance is “the single biggest driver of global inequality in the world today.” The Tax Justice Network backs this up with its estimates that between $21 trillion and $32 trillion is stored in offshore tax havens.
Despite claims from many of those unmasked in the Panama Papers that what they’ve done is not illegal, wrongdoings abound, as a fantastically snarky piece in the Independent illustrates:
Everyone connected with these trusts insists they’ve ‘done nothing illegal’. It’s a refreshing attitude, as you can get fed up with people worrying whether someone’s behaviour breaches any code of morality. Presumably, if the wife of one of these businessmen came home to find them having an orgy with the entire cast of Emmerdale in a room mocked up to look like Anne Frank’s attic, they’d say, “Alright, don’t make a fuss. I’ve not done anything illegal.”
In a modern world, it’s far more appropriate if wealthy people can decide how much their tax bill comes to, rather than be constrained by the stuffy old system of being told by the government how much to pay. Maybe we can extend this rule to other items, such as cheese. If you can afford it, register a cheeseboard in the Cayman Islands and then you’re allowed to take as much cheese as you like for four pence a year.
There have been some unfortunate outcomes as a result of the whistleblower’s choice to hand over the data cache to the German paper Süddeutsche Zeitung. Among them, as British broadcaster and human rights activist Craig Murray points out, is the fact that putting such valuable information in the hands of Western corporate media means that the public should not expect “a genuine expose of western capitalism [as] the dirty secrets of western corporations will remain unpublished.”
There has indeed been an absence of analysis regarding Americans implicated in the leak, although information about ties to the Clintons are starting to emerge. This could be due to the fact that the U.S. has its own tax havens, which are comparable to those in Panama. Salon’s David Dayen wrote recently that “the United States is the second-easiest country in the world to obtain an anonymous shell corporation account. (The first is Kenya.)”
Regardless of these problems, which have more to do with the journalists and organizations entrusted with analyzing the leak, the anonymous person who at great risk to his or her own safety had the courage to blow the whistle on the rich who feel above the law is to be lauded as an example of effective activism. Perhaps, as Edward Snowden tweeted regarding the leak, “courage is contagious” after all, and others will be inspired to follow in the footsteps of the great whistleblowers of our time. For this reason, the person who leaked the Panama Papers is our Truthdigger of the Week.