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Whatever Happened to the Panama Papers?

In The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier tell the story of the Mossack Fonseca revelation. But what was the outcome?

Mossack Fonseca law firm sign is pictured in Panama City, April 4, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Jasso/Files

Mossack Fonseca law firm sign is pictured in Panama City, April 4, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Carlos Jasso/Files

The Panama Papers were the biggest leak in history. Over a period of months, an unknown man, referred to only as ‘John Doe’, released 2.6 terabytes of documents from the Panama based law firm, Mossack Fonseca. These documents implicated everybody from the closest friends of Vladimir Putin, to Ian Cameron, the father of the former British Prime Minister, David Cameron. Presidents and opposition leaders, child rapists, FIFA officials, the close family of the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, the bagmen (and cousins) of the Syrian dictator, Basher al Assad, all figured prominently.

Even the backstory of the firm, with one of its founding partners, Jurgen Mossack, is full of sleaze. He is the son of Erhard Mossack, who the US Counter Intelligence Corps described as, “indoctrinated through and through with Nazi ideology. As a typical Hitler Youth leader, he still lives in his world of Nazi slogans and is a remarkable example of a German youth under Hitler”. Of course this did not stop the CIA from working with him and helping him to immigrate to Panama, where his son would help found one of the machines of corruption that helps everybody from middle eastern dictators to Lionel Messi hide their illegal money.

Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money One World, 2016

Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier
The Panama Papers: Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money
One World, 2016

This is the story told by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, the two journalists at Suddeutshe Zeitung who were the leads on this story. Bastian is the man who receives the initial email from the unnamed leaker – a man or woman whose identity remains unknown to this day. The “Brothers Obermayer/ier”, as they are jokingly referred to by friends and colleagues (and how they sometimes refer to themselves) because of the similarity of their last names, soon find themselves struggling to cope with the size of the leak. This story is as much about what they discover as it is about the remarkable coalition of journalists they assemble from across the world, under the aegis of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – including Ritu Sarin from the The Indian Express.

As depressing as the story is about the level of skulduggery revealed by the rich and famous of the world, the other story of journalists willing to risk their careers and their lives to report this wrongdoing is inspiring. The Brothers Obermayer/ier are ever aware of the risks that their foreign colleagues run. On a trip to Africa since, many of their African colleagues cannot afford to make the reverse trip, they write:

That’s another thing that becomes clearer to us each month we work on our investigation: the dream conditions under which we work. We’re not threatened, arrested, or shot dead, and even earn good money for our work. What’s more, if we want to go to Washington or Iceland, we simply book a flight.

And yet what has come out of all this? The president of Iceland lost his seat. A minister from Spain stepped down. David Cameron was embarrassed for a few days, but he will be remembered for his incompetence, not his crookedness. Journalists in Hong Kong and Venezuela lost their jobs. A few measures to limit such practices and a few investigations into the workings of banks were launched. In India, the government formed a multi-agency team to probe the list. Unsurprisingly, nothing has come of it so far, and I would be doubtful if anything does. We were unsurprised when the name of Amitabh Bachchan, who did PR for the Samajwadi Party in UP and now does the same for Gujarat, figured prominently on the list. When he talks of the wild ass in Gujarat and says that if someone calls you a gadha, an ass, you should not be insulted, it seems like he is addressing the Indian public, which has been repeatedly made an ass out of.

The Brothers Obermayer/ier clearly identify the self-interest of the US, the EU and in particular the leading German banks in making sure that the current system continues in place, so that people can hide their wealth from the public (and taxes). It seems odd that they do not investigate the role of intelligence agencies, for whom the shadow world of illegal finance is almost indispensable and who are formidable players on the global stage, and help shape policy.

In this regard, the closing statement by the leaker, John Doe, is clearer and ominous. He or she writes, “When it takes a whistleblower to sound the alarm, it is cause for even greater concern. It signals that democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner.”

The Panama Papers by Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier is published by OneWorld and is distributed in India by Pan Macmillan