A survey of the newspaper outlets operating in countries where high profile officials and businessmen have been named in the ‘Panama Papers’— a leak of 11 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca — reveals a degree of confusion over what the “data dump” actually means. As the overwhelming amount of data is slowly being digested, government officials across the globe are hitting back at claims of illegal activity. Where there is no confusion, however, is in Russia and Iceland; Russian media having described the leak as a ‘hoax’ and the Icelandic newspapers are reporting on calls for a motion of no confidence against the government.
The Independent and The Telegraph have both picked up on the connection linking Prime Minster David Cameron to the Panama leak through his father. An article in the Mirror states, “Mr Cameron’s father, who died in 2010, is reported to have used Mossack Fonseca to shield his investment fund, Blairmore Holdings Inc, from UK taxes. Papers say his fund was “managed and conducted so it does not become resident in the United Kingdom for UK taxation purposes.”
However, with no evidence linking Cameron directly to the Panama documents the story is not grabbing as much attention as other big names revealed in the leaked documents.
The lead story in The Guardian, for example, focuses on the evidence being traced to Russian President Vladimir Putin rather than the high profile Conservative peers investigated for using tax havens.
Although tax evasion is illegal in the UK, tax avoidance or minimisation is usually legal. Media coverage appears focused on on what steps Cameron will take to “crackdown” on the ways wealthy people shelter their money from tax, given the upcoming anti-corruption summit in London in May.
The leak has also created an opportunity for the opposition parties to voice their criticism of the government. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell told the Mirror: “The Panama papers revelations are extremely serious. Cameron promised and has failed to end tax secrecy and crack down on ‘morally unacceptable’ offshore schemes, real action is now needed.”
A correspondent for The News was a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) investigation team, that involved more than 100 media organisations from 76 countries to review 11.5 million secret files as part of the Panama Papers project. In a lengthy article, the correspondent outlined the extent of the accusations relating to high profile Pakistanis:
“Over 200 Pakistanis have been identified and the counting is still in progress…The names found in the secret files range from those of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s relatives; from Benazir Bhutto to Javed Pasha; from Senator Rehman Malik to Senator Osman Saifullah’s family; and from Waseem Gulzar (a relative of the Chaudhrys of Gujrat) to Zain Sukhera, who was co-accused with former Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani’s son in the Haj scandal.
Most other Pakistani newspapers, including the The Daily Times and Dawn, focused on the allegations relating to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family.
Under the headline Panama Papers reveal Sharif family’s ‘offshore holdings, Dawn details the information available on the ICIJ website relating to Sharif’s children, Hassan Nawaz Sharif and Mariam Safdar. The Daily Times reports that their offshore businesses were used to buy “at least six upmarket properties overlooking London’s Hyde Park,” raising suspicions of tax evasion. It also stresses that Sharif has previously denied ownership of any such properties and that Hassan and Mariam have not responded to queries emailed to them by The Indian Express.
Although it claims that the leak is not necessarily evidence of wrongdoing, Dawn highlights the financial controversy that has surrounded the Sharif’s in the past:
“At various times, depending on the political party in power, the Sharifs – one of Pakistan’s richest families – have been accused of corruption, ownership of illegal assets, tax avoidance and money laundering. Mariam, Hussain and their father have been detained on such charges, exiled to Saudi Arabia and also acquitted.”
Pervez Rasheed, Pakistan’s information minister, has defended Sharif and his family, saying, “Every man has the right to do what he wants with his assets, to throw them in the sea, to sell them, or to establish a trust for them. There is no crime in this in Pakistani law or in international law.”
The Buenos Aires Herald reported on the accusations that President Mauricio Macri failed to declare his ties as “director” and “vice-president” of a company based in the Bahamas and managed by Mossack Fonseca, when the president was a businessman and served as the mayor of Buenos Aires City. The political impact of the exposé in Argentina has also been noted in the media, with reports noting that the head of the Anti-Corruption office, Laura Alonso, has jumped to defend the president in a tweet protesting that “to open a company in a tax haven is not a crime in itself,” and warning reporters not to jump to conclusions.
La Nación reported that the Argentinian government has dismissed any claims of wrongdoing, quoting a spokesmen for the PRO party chief: “The firm’s goal was to be considered an institutional investor or a holding in other nonfinancial companies in Brazil. It had ties to the family business conglomerate, hence Mauricio Macri’s incidental appointment as director, without a stake (in the company).”
The fallout of the leak is more obvious in Iceland where Prime Minister David Sigmund has been accused of using his wife’s company, registered in an off shore tax haven, to claim millions from the bankrupt estates of Iceland’s fallen banks.
“Thousands call for resignation of Sigmund: Revealed as a charlatan and a liar,” read the headline by Fréttablaðið, highlighting the loss of confidence in the government. The Iceland Monitor reports on the reaction of the opposition figures in the country who have described the case as “inexcusable” and a “stain on Iceland’s international reputation,” calling for a motion of no confidence which, if passed, could spell the end for Iceland’s current centre-right government.
Although the response in Russia has been muted so far with no mention of the leaks on state television and little mention by the country’s main news agencies, there are some reports accusing the ICIJ investigation of being part of a western conspiracy against the country. In response to the claims that Putin’s inner circle have been involved in an “alleged $2 billion clandestine money laundering scheme”, Russian news outlets have printed reminders that the government had previously warned a ‘hoax’ article was expected.
The Moscow Times admits that the ICIJ investigation identified a “detailed a trail of transactions that leads from Bank Rossiya, a Russian bank on the EU and U.S. sanctions list, to various countries including Switzerland and Panama”. However, the article also reports that, “Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov in late March warned of an impending hatchet job on the Russian president by international journalists, anticipating the publication of another hoax [article], pretending to be objective.”
Prior to the leak, Pravda also reported that “Western publications were preparing a series of publications in an attempt to discredit Putin’s reputation”. Pravda claimed that the attempts to attack Putin and his close associates were a part of the “media warfare against Russia” that reflect “the strengthening role and authority of Russia in the world”.