WASHINGTON - Last month’s initial wave of Panama Papers stories, revealing how global elites exploit offshore tax havens to hide wealth, brought down high-level officials in Iceland and Spain, embarrassed British Prime Minister David Cameron and alleged a money-laundering scheme by associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Monday’s release of a public database has the potential for even greater impact, says the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which holds the trove of more than 11.5 million documents leaked from a Panamanian law firm and initially shared only with select journalists.
“I think the biggest bombshell is that we are putting the power back in the hands of citizens,” Marina Walker Guevara, the deputy director of the ICIJ, told VOA Monday.
Watch video report from VOA's Zlatica Hoke:
At 2 p.m. ET Monday, ICIJ opened access on its website to a searchable database of 200,000 offshore entities expected to link account holders in more than 200 countries and territories. The database fuses basic corporate information from the Panama Papers – documents that the law firm Mossack Fonseca contends were stolen – and similar data from a 2013 ICIJ investigation into international tax shelters.
The information about companies, trusts and foundations is searchable by country, name, address and other fields. Sensitive information, such as bank accounts and personal identification, has been stripped out.
Walker Guevara co-manages the Panama Papers investigative project, which initially brought together more than 370 journalists from more than 100 news organizations and roughly 80 countries. Stories, including those by VOA Zimbabawe service reporter Ray Choto, began to roll out in early April.
Their reporting found involvement in offshore companies by an assortment of the powerful or prominent. Among them: 140 politicians, including 12 current and former political leaders; billionaires; sports stars; drug smugglers and mafia members. Also listed were at least 33 people and companies blacklisted by the U.S. government for evidence of involvement in wrongly doing business with Mexican drug lords or with rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran.
News of their reliance on tax havens led to resignations by Iceland’s Prime Minister David Gunnlaugson and Spain’s Industry Minister Jose Manuel Soria. Cameron was forced to answer questions about an offshore trust established by his father. Putin denied any allegations of involvement in wrongdoing.
No legal action has been taken against ICIJ so far, Walker Guevara said. “We have worked very hard to be accurate and to provide context in our stories.”
Now, in opening up the database for public scrutiny, she warned that it "should be used responsibly" and not to conduct "witch hunts." She noted that names can easily be mistaken and must be vetted against addresses and other identifying factors before any publicizing of perceived wrongdoing.
More important, Walker Guevara said, is that the public understand financial dealings and "the role that big banks and big law firms play. ... What is the impact they can have in their societies?"
"We are going toward a more transparent world, hopefully, in which more of these public registries will be used," she added.
Threats to journalists
Walker Guevara said that, though ICIJ is willing to speak with governments, its policy is not to share documents nor disclose the names of journalists who might be threatened.
For instance, Khadija Ismayilova, a reporter for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was imprisoned after revealing vast business assets belonging to Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev. RFE/RL is part of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that oversees U.S. civilian international media including VOA.
“Many governments have put a great deal of pressure on journalists to release or share the data with them,” Walker Guevara said. “We’ve made it clear the documents are owned or controlled by ICIJ.”
The journalists’ collaboration provides “the protection of the pack, the protection of the network,” Walker Guevara said. “You can silence one reporter. You cannot silence a whole network.”
She noted that the database includes information on Turkey, whose government has clamped down on press freedom. Last week, for example, the editor and the Ankara bureau chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet were found guilty of revealing state secrets. Nonetheless, Walker Guevara said journalists affiliated with ICIJ and supported by a network of colleagues outside the country, “are hard at work. In the next few weeks, you will see stories about Turkey.”
Reacting to the Panama Papers investigation, U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday called upon Congress to pass legislation that would improve transparency and reduce corruption. He urged requiring that all U.S.-formed companies disclose "beneficial owners" – those who would profit from the tax breaks – and that domestic and foreign banks be mandated to share information with law enforcement fighting corruption.
Walker Guevara expressed skepticism.
"Sometimes policymakers, when trying to address loopholes, create new loopholes," she said. She also cited the Republican-dominated Congress’ opposition to Obama, along with election-year politicking, as likely obstacles.
States, too, can put up barriers. Walker Guevara noted that ICIJ stories have identified Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming among the world’s top tax havens.
On Monday, the Associated Press reported that hundreds of economists pressed governments to clamp down on tax havens as outlets that benefit the elite and drive greater inequality. They set out their objections in a letter organized by the Oxfam anti-poverty organization and published before Thursday's London summit on international corruption.
Walker Guevara said the ICIJ stories about tax havens have brought calls "to create more transparency, to create public registries." Those, she said, "undoubtedly [have] decreased investment, at least temporarily. The question: Will these be long-lasting changes? ... Will the changes really be profound?"