One year ago “John Doe” sent a message. “John Doe’s” real name certainly is not John Doe. But this name, commonly used in the US by people who would like to uphold their anonymity, popped up. John asked a question that aroused our curiosity: “Interested in data? I would be happy to share.” And with that, one of the most unusual and exciting chapters in the history of Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) started.
SZ is now able to give insights into a demimonde, a shadow world which up to this point nobody from outside has ever been able to look into. This is a world in which people covertly shove back and forth assets worth millions. Here is where they park company shares, a world in which they buy yachts and airplanes.
In this shadowy world some of the action is completely legal. It can be reasonable for a German bank manager to keep secret the fact that he owns a mansion on the island of Mallorca. He might decide to hide the necessary papers in an offshore company. Fair enough as long as his assets are taxed in his home country. However, this is not the case for many of the business activities which are handled through offshore companies in overseas tax havens.
Often, those accounts are solely a cover-up for unlawful activities and shall protect criminals. SZ has evaluated data together with 400 journalists from all over the world during the past twelve months. Suddenly it becomes obvious how gigantic the problem of offshore businesses really is und how urgent it is for the world community to act upon it.
So far it has commonly been known that rich people and companies use offshore firms to avoid – as they see it – annoying taxation as much as possible. This is already shameless often and violates the societal contract, because these taxes are desperately needed for national budgets. The missing money can’t be used for community purposes: the construction of schools, rail tracks and public housing. But the offshore problem goes far beyond that. Apparently terror groups are using this system to finance themselves, as SZ’s stories will show. Criminal regimes in Syria and elsewhere are presumably capable to bypass sanctions imposed by the international community und able to continue a war with barrel bombs against its own people.
Members of China’s state and party leadership up to the entourage of the president himself apparently have set up an extraordinary amount of companies in or through Panama to hide millions of dollars abroad. Even before we published the results of our research, we received threats by those people who were confronted with our findings. The spokesperson of the Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared his people for an “information attack” of Western media. That was the Kremlin’s official answer to questions we had raised about those dubious transfers of huge amounts of money by the President’s entourage and about the fabulous wealth of close friends of Putin.
The law firm in Panama running many of these business deals, announced retaliatory measures against coming publications. The use of “information/documentation unlawfully obtained” would be a crime.
When Edward Snowden passed on his knowledge about the wiretapping of the NSA the US government also accused him of a crime: betrayal of secrets. Colleagues from The Guardian had to justify themselves because they published the material obtained by Snowden.
Many John Does are currently out there in the financial world. For media outlets the decisive question is not only if these informations were obtained legitimately. There are two other crucial points: Is the source trustworthy? And is there a legitimate public interest?
Together with their partners Süddeutsche Zeitung checked and compared thousands of documents John Doe had delivered to us. We double cross examined with other publications and documents or files from lawsuits. Not in a single case there were any doubts. And the public interest here is obvious: The secrets of the Panama Papers need to be revealed.
This interest is not a voyeuristic one. It must not be kept secret if a state – as in the case of Snowden – is gathering information about its citizens, continuously breaching law or the legal shell of friends and allies. On the same token it must not be kept a secret when the community of states – as in the case of the offshore business – does nothing or not enough if a criminal regimes breaches sanctions. This has to be revealed.