Nonprofit Coordinates Massive Journalistic Collaboration: The Panama Papers

April 6, 2016; Washington Post

When the coordinated release of the “Panama Papers” stories hit the airwaves on Sunday, documenting the widespread use of offshore tax havens among politicians and criminals, it was the result of an extended period of cooperation among news organizations that had to agree to share information with one another but not release anything until the agreed-upon time. How did that happen?

A central player in the massive endeavor is a small 11-person unit inside the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity called the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). According to the Washington Post, that group was entrusted with the task by German journalists who were the original recipients of the leaked information, and it ended up coordinating the 370 journalists from 100 media groups spread over 70 countries that worked on the project. The Center for Public Integrity calls the effort the biggest-ever journalistic collaboration working on the largest leak in history.

But this was not the group’s first rodeo. For instance, it coordinated the “Swiss Leaks” project last year, which involved journalists from 45 countries, and a few months before that, an investigation of secret tax deals between hundreds of global companies and officials in Luxembourg.

Michael Hudson, the ICIJ’s senior editor, said the goal was to find local journalists who knew the territory. He says that the method is suited both to the scope of the investigation and the times.

“Instead of us parachuting in to do reporting, we let the folks on ground do it,” Hudson said. “So many of the most important stories today are so complex and so global that the old-style lone-wolf reporter or Woodward and Bernstein just can’t do it.”

This unusual journalistic advance is an excellent example of what nonprofits can create if they make full use of their own unique identities and capacities, and embrace their role of acting in the public’s benefit first rather than trying to act exactly like businesses, with all of the constraints that come with that.—Ruth McCambridge

  • Wade

    There’s a sentiment already forming online questioning the intention of the Panama Papers leak. It’s best summarized by former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, and current human rights activist, Craig Murray, who recently stated:

    “Whoever leaked the Mossack Fonseca papers appears motivated by a genuine desire to expose the system that enables the ultra wealthy to hide their massive stashes …

    “Unfortunately the leaker has made the dreadful mistake of turning to the western corporate media to publicise the results. In consequence the first major story, published today by [UK news agency] the Guardian, is all about Vladimir Putin … As it happens I believe the story and have no doubt Putin is bent.

    “But why focus on Russia? Russian wealth is only a tiny minority of the money hidden away with the aid of Mossack Fonseca. In fact, it soon becomes obvious that the selective reporting is going to stink.

    “What do you expect? The leak is being managed by the grandly but laughably named “International Consortium of Investigative Journalists”, which is funded and organised entirely by the USA’s Center for Public Integrity. Their funders include:

    Ford Foundation
    Carnegie Endowment
    Rockefeller Family Fund
    W K Kellogg Foundation
    Open Society Foundation ([billionaire George] Soros)

    “among many others. Do not expect a genuine expose of western capitalism. The dirty secrets of western corporations will remain unpublished.

    “Expect hits at Russia, Iran and Syria and some tiny “balancing” western country like Iceland. A superannuated UK peer or two will be sacrificed – someone already with dementia.
    “What if they did Mossack Fonseca searches on every listed company in the western stock exchanges, and on every western millionaire they could trace?“

  • Kebo Drew

    I am so glad to know about Center for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists through their work on the Panama Papers. As the impact of their work expands around the world, it shows the good work that nonprofits and journalists can do on behalf of our communities. Especially as income inequality and the widening wealth gap become more clear than ever, understanding who has our money is key to creating change. Now, I wonder, when will people take on the underpinnings of philanthropy, where wealth is diverted into foundations (and not taxed)? Kim Klein has been doing great work around the commons and taxes. As the legend about Soros goes, when talking about his foundation he said, “well it’s my money.” To which a junior staffer said, “no, actually its ours,” meaning that if Soros’ money wasn’t in the foundation, it would have gone into the tax base to pay for infrastructure, schools, etc.