The failure of Panama Papers

The public release of a big tranche of documents last week, called the ‘Panama Papers’, made the headlines in Sri Lanka, but for all the wrong reasons. Called the largest leak in history, an anonymous source released around eleven and a half million documents, spanning decades, from the Panama based law-firm Mossack Fonseca. At around five times the volume of data as an average computer’s total hard drive capacity, the leaked content was far too large to handle for one media institution to grasp. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which led the analysis of the content, worked with members, who are journalists, from around the world. ICIJ pulled off something quite rare – a concerted global effort, involving dozens of individuals and institutions, over many months, to bring to light the sordid details of dealings with Mossack Fonseca. Importantly, being part of the law firm’s clientele isn’t illegal and not everyone identified thus far has a violent past, or laundered money to hide. The list of names, now in the public domain, has however highlighted the role of firms like Mossack Fonseca and their dealings with individuals who have been involved in, as noted in ICIJ’s website, bribery, arms deals, tax evasion, financial fraud and drug trafficking. In other words, the firm was the go to place for the world’s worst criminals to hide their money.

The release last week saw twenty-two names linked to Sri Lanka in their dealing with Mossack Fonseca. Eighteen of these individuals are Sri Lankan, four foreign and possibly domiciled here. Unsurprisingly, this kindled the interest of mainstream media, at least for around a day. The coverage, interest and responses showcase a critical flaw in ICIJ’s approach to Panama Papers- the Sri Lankan media’s inability to deal with this kind of investigative journalism and the lack of political will to investigate meaningfully Sri Lankans named thus far as the ignoble law-firm’s clients.

In a frenzy to be fast and first, much of the mainstream media reported that sixty-five Sri Lankans were named as part of the Panama Papers documents released by the ICIJ last week. In their injudicious haste, journalists had conflated the names of Sri Lankans implicated in maintaining offshore accounts by the ICIJ in 2013, with the documents released last week. The ICIJ makes it very clear on their database which names are linked to which tranche of documents. The older information is linked to Portcullis Trustnet (now Portcullis) and Commonwealth Trust Limited, two offshore service providers highlighted as part of ICIJ’s 2013 Offshore Leaks exposé. The majority of mainstream media – in Sinhala, Tamil and English, over print and broadcast – completely missed this guidance. If our country demonstrably doesn’t have journalists with basic skills to comprehend what is a remarkably simple database by the ICIJ, who have done all of the hard work, it begs the question as to what role they can and should play in holding the individuals named in Panama Leaks to the scrutiny of the public, regulators and government. Merely telling consumer who is in the document isn’t enough. We need to know why.

This folds into what is a fatal flaw with ICIJ’s approach to dealing with the documents, which is to assume the integrity and competency of journalists who are its members. This is deeply questionable in Sri Lanka. All of the material released thus far in the public domain is a fraction of what ICIJ members have access to, and for months. The information in the public domain is redacted – no disclosure of bank accounts, email exchanges or financial transactions contained in the original documents. ICIJ members have full access to this information. And yet, for whatever reason, the Sri Lankan media is yet to explore or highlight in detail, with names and hard data, evidence of financial impropriety by clients of Mossack Fonseca who are Sri Lankan. This isn’t a country devoid of data scientists, financial analysts and investigative journalists of international calibre. A young team at a leading software company developed this year a way to visualise in real time all mentions of the two leading Presidential candidates in the US across social media, dealing with hundreds of millions of records in close to real time. The same technical architectures can be used to analyse the Panama Papers data. The country’s blossoming, multi-lingual civic media space alone features many path-breaking individuals with integrity who combine skill, insight, imagination and compelling output to flag stories just two years ago would never have seen the light of day. The Minister of Finance is getting such a hard time today because we have perspicacious economists who call the bluff of government, demystify numbers and say it as it is. And yet, ICIJ’s members in Sri Lanka work in total isolation, hoarding information yet clearly unable to meaningful report or work on it, unwilling to seek help and sceptical of any and all collaboration. The result is an outrageous bottle-neck. Whereas in Iceland for example, an engaged media and informed general public were able to get rid of their Prime Minister, implicated in the Panama Papers, in Sri Lanka we don’t even know the full details of those named to date. The real violence here is in a media culture that acts as officious gate-keeper, empowering individuals with an ossified mind-set who are such an ill-fit for journalism as it should be, and the public deserve.

There is also the question of political will. Sri Lankans can legally engage in offshore operations and open offshore accounts, but unsurprisingly have to declare such dealings to the Inland Revenue Department and the relevant authorities at the Central Bank. Over 40 individuals were identified by the ICIJ’s ‘Offshore Leaks’ documents in 2013. Not a single one has faced any media scrutiny save for one public official who, after being incorrectly linked to Panama Papers, resigned from his post as Advisor to a powerful MP. This goes to show that memory is both fickle and short, and due diligence around the appointment of public officials clearly optional. However, it may well be that 2013’s list of names will now face much greater scrutiny than under the Rajapaksa regime, along with the names linked to Panama Papers. As other columnists in the media have noted however, action by the government to meaningfully address corruption remains a good idea. The President openly shares photo opportunities with those accused of kidnapping and shares the stage with odious individuals from the Rajapaksa regime. Updates from the FICD and CIABOC have migrated in the public imagination from news to entertainment, with high-profile appearances followed by complete stasis. The train wreck of governance under the former regime, involving leading industrialists, hoteliers and corporations has gone unquestioned. It is likely, through sordid new deals, these same individuals are now the best friends of, and supporting financially, the current government.

The power of Panama Papers lies not in the millions of documents themselves, but in how they are used to inform and investigate. The ICIJ’s website features so many compelling articles around how the documents have held famous actors, prominent politicians and even heads of State accountable for their financial transactions and involvement in offshore accounts. Here in Sri Lanka, we are still struggling to get the number of Sri Lankans mentioned in Panama Papers right.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 15 May 2016

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