One year on, the impact of the Panama Papers has been profound. Government officials have resigned. Executives have been sacked. Criminal charges have been filed. But, arguably, the biggest impact the exposé has had is what the documents tells us about the true value of transparency as a tool to uncover wrongdoing and to hold the powerful to account.
When the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released the Panama Papers last April, the sheer size of the leak was shocking; millions of documents and hundreds of thousands of secret companies, spanning across 2 terabytes of data. Yet, what the data revealed was even more profound: a full cross section of offshore financial industry secrecy that showed countless links to organized crime and tax evasion schemes, and exposed a myriad of public officials and high-powered executives using this shadow financial system for private gain.
By November 2016, Europol reported that it had found 3,469 probable matches to criminal and terrorist organizations when they compared the Panama Papers to their own files. Similarly, the Panama Papers provide an evergreen resource for journalists to cross-check as stories develop involving allegedly corrupt actors and politicians, including those currently occupying headlines in the U.S.
The media coverage following the release served to further amplify the Papers’ impact. The Prime Minister of Iceland resigned. Dozens more political figures around the world, including figures in the UK government and the Trump Administration, are either under investigation or are being asked tough questions by the public about any association with an entity or individual cited in a Panama Papers-related scandal. Canada’s Royal Bank closed more than forty bank accounts after Panama Papers audits.
Companies named in connection with the Papers took hits to their share prices. The two founding partners of Mossack Fonseca, the law firm where the paper originated, have been arrested and refused bail in relation to a scandal in Brazil. And, on March 20th, 2017, the House Intelligence Committee investigating Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election raised concerns about possible “brokerage fees” associated with an opaquely structured British corporate vehicle, most of whose officers are anonymous companies in the Caymans and Qatar, holding a 19.5% stake in the Russian oil giant, Rosneft. The vehicle in question, QHG Holding LLP, lists Glencore Energy UK LTD as one of its three officers, along with Glencore UK Ltd as persons with significant control over it. Glencore companies are reported to appear over 660 times within the Panama Papers.
The Panama Papers validated the work of transparency campaigners like us at Global Witness who document how opaque shell companies, shady lawyers and complicit banks are constant parties to some of the biggest corruption scandals. We are encouraged by the swift calls from the global community for action in the wake of what the Papers revealed.
However, in a year, much else has changed. The political climate in the U.S., UK and elsewhere is filled with talk of ‘fake’ news, alternative facts and conspiracy theories on both ends of the political spectrum. The Panama Papers have been caught in the gravity of this; links to data found in the Papers are often pointed to as unassailable proof that dirty deeds are being done.
It is true that sometimes where there’s smoke, there’s fire. But, on this anniversary, it’s important to step away from today’s scandals and recognize the real value of the information contained in this unusual database. The Panama Papers are not like a treasure chest filled with scandals to be exhumed (though that may be true in some cases). Rather, the Papers are a vital repository of keys needed to unlock the scandals of today, and tomorrow.
This distinction matters because in many cases, we already know or suspect what scandals are out there. But, often we lack critical information to connect the dots, prove a case and use that proof to hold powerful actors accountable for their actions.
We’ve seen use of the kind of anonymous companies found in the Panama Papers turn up in our investigations—from unknown individuals who acquired a network of offshore-owned companies which in turn invested in £147million worth of prime property in some of London’s most famous addresses, to bribery allegations in Africa linked to major U.S. hedge funds. Sometimes we’re able to uncover the true owners of these companies and crack the case. More often, we and others are stymied by anonymity; the truth remains hidden, justice is not served.
This is why we advocate for transformative transparency initiatives like those related to conflict minerals and revenue transparency in extractive industries, as well as new registries coming online in the UK and EU that require companies to reveal their true owners.
We shouldn’t have to wait for massive leaks like the Panama Papers to shed light on the inner workings of criminal and corrupt activities. We’re certain there will continue to be corruption scandals and criminal activity that we and others will need to investigate to determine the truth. However, until we’re able as a society to make transparency the rule, not the exception, both the real story and the transformative change we seek, making corruption and conflict a thing of the past, will elude us all.
So, on this anniversary, let’s not only remember the stellar work of the global team of journalists who delivered the Panama Papers to the world and the valuable information they contain; let’s remember why such information – and such revelations – are important in the first place.
Updated 4 April 2017