Prime ministers with hidden bank accounts. FIFA officials who hid their ownership of huge yachts. Billions of dollars changing hands between Vladimir Putin’s closest friends.
Those secrets are no longer secret—thanks to the work of almost 400 journalists in more than 50 countries.
It’s called the “Panama Papers,” a leak of 2.6 terabytes of data from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which helped politicians, celebrities, and other well-to-do individuals around the globe avoid taxes with secret offshore accounts.
The groundbreaking reporting on the leak, the first batch of which went online yesterday, was directed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which partnered with news organizations around the globe. Fusion was one of only two English U.S. media organizations involved in the effort, along with McClatchy newspapers.
The effort began when an inside source leaked the massive document trove to Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the biggest newspapers in Germany, early last year. Editors there realized what they’d been given and essentially called in reinforcements: They shared the data with the ICIJ, an umbrella organization of investigative journalists.
The ICIJ launched what was then code-named “Project Prometheus,” and invited a total of 250 media organizations—working in 25 different languages—to partner on reporting the data. Fusion got involved in early November.
The first challenge was to create a transparent, collaborative process for the reporting that allowed different organizations working in almost about every single timezone to share what they had found. At first, they gathered to meet in-person at big meetings in Munich, Washington, D.C., and Johannesburg, among other cities.
But the hub of collaboration was an internal social network and database called iHub that the ICIJ built to help reporters collaborate—essentially a Facebook for the investigative journalists working on the project. Reporters had personal profiles, could send messages to each other, and created different groups to collaborate on a variety of reporting topics. The entire system was protected with several layers of encryption and 30-digit passcodes.
“It basically looks like Facebook,” said Will Fitzgibbon, a reporter at ICIJ who worked on the project. “It’s really important to have this central project space where everything can be discussed.” The application could be reused for future group investigations, he said.
The social network was connected to the actual database of leaked files, mostly PDFs of corporate documents and extracted emails of lawyers at the law firm. The documents were uploaded to the ICIJ server, encrypted, and put through OCR (a process that makes text in images searchable).
Three reporters from Fusion’s Investigative Unit—holed up in the back of the newsroom—worked on the story more-or-less full-time since November, while a few others on the team pitched in on specific stories. One of the hardest parts was just dealing with such a huge volume of data, and figuring out what was worth spending time on. “It was like falling down a Wikipedia hole that is full of mirrors,” said Adam Weinstein, Fusion’s investigative digital editor.
The reporters soon realized that it wasn’t as easy as searching someone’s name and seeing if they own a shell company. Sometimes shell companies were owned by other shell companies, adding layers of complexity and secrecy.
A more successful angle was searching for friends of friends: for example, Sergei Roldugin, the Russian cellist who grew up with Vladimir Putin, secretly moved $2 billion through offshore accounts in Panama, Cyprus, and Switzerland. And searching for phrases like “sensitive client” turned up emails by the law firm’s due diligence department worrying about legal exposure from notorious clients.
Once reporters found an interesting lead, they’d post it in the iHub social network, and other journalists would comment and compare notes. It was a bit of an adaptation for reporters to work on a story with reporters from organizations who they’d normally be competing against.
“We would stumble upon these amazing cases, and you’d go on iHub and realize someone else already discovered it,” said Alice Brennan, the investigative producer at Fusion who led the team.
The data came with a long list of ground rules from the ICIJ, including a strict schedule of when different topics could be published or even mentioned to other sources.
Even as they released the first reports, the investigative reporters at Fusion and other ICIJ partner organizations aren’t slowing down. More stories will be coming out over the next few months. Fusion will air its hour-long documentary on the leaks on April 17. “It’s such a massive trove of information that there will probably be new revelations surfacing for a long time to come,” Weinstein said.
The reporting procedure is also an example of a successful journalistic collaboration to tackle a big story.
“The impact of the Panama Papers even 24 hours after its launch shows that one journalist or one newspaper or one TV show could never have this kind of impact alone,” Fitzgibbon said.