'Hello, this is John Doe, are you interested in secret data?'... and then came the Panama Papers : Frederik Obermaier, German journalist
Updated on: 07 Jun 2016
The world knows it as the Panama Papers. In the biggest data leak in history, more than 11 million documents lifted the lid on how the rich and powerful – from world leaders to film stars – use tax havens to conceal their wealth. The files leaked from secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca show how its clients were able to launder money, dodge sanctions and avoid tax.
It all began when an anonymous source contacted Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, reporters with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, seeking to expose this global scandal. In the midst of the worldwide flurry caused by this leak of documents, Obermaier describes how events unfolded and the challenges of bringing the case to light:
How did the Panama Papers saga begin?
It started with an encrypted message, which said: "Hello, this is John Doe, are you interested in secret data?" And that's a great beginning for an investigative journalist. Nevertheless, we often get similar messages, and most of them are just unworthy, because it is usually people saying they have secret documents and then they send a link to an article that's not really secret or useful for us.
However, it soon turned out that the data being offered to us by the source was internal data from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that sets up offshore companies worldwide. For us this, was very interesting, as in past investigations we often found offshore companies setup by Mossack Fonseca being involved in scandals. However, that usually used to be the end of our investigations because we couldn't identify the owners of these companies. But now, with this data, we can see behind these curtains and find out who is the real and beneficial owner of a company. So this offered us great insight into this secret offshore world.
However, it soon turned out to be a little bit too much data for two journalists to handle. 2.6 terabytes is quite an unimaginable amount. If you imagine this data as books, it would be millions of books. This was when we decided to involve the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Bastian (Obermayer) and myself are members of the same. But we still had to convince our colleagues, as it is not normal for investigative journalists to share exclusive material with outsiders, or in this case, hundreds of other journalists.