HRAFF 2019: The Panama Papers

By Samaya Borom
The Panama Papers
Image courtesy of HRAFF

The Panama Papers 

Directed by Alex Winter

 

We live in a world of collected information. Data is created, collected and maintained in almost all aspects of our daily lives. This data collection continues with government, multinational organisations and other business relying more and more on the ability to transact across global networks, sharing data with each other, and of course, shifting data between each other in a way that has never before been possible.

Over the course of a decade we have witnessed, under the organisation Wikileaks, the release of thousands of documentation related to topics such as the War on Terror and potential war crimes, cables about political interference in trade, emails concerning presidential races and collusion and most recently the private letters of Pope Francis in regards to a power struggle within the Catholic Church and the Knights of Malta. Wikileaks had been aided by former US Army soldier Chelsea Manning in the release of classified or sensitive documentation around what was termed ‘Iraq War Logs’ and ‘Afghan War Diary’ with media organisation Der Spiegel arguing that they were the greatest leaks in military history as they brought to light crucial and hidden information about US involvement in civilian deaths.

In 2013 Edward Snowden, former Central Intelligence Agency and sub-contractor to the National Security Agency gave information to various news organisations about widespread surveillance by the Five Eyes alliance made up of the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom on citizens through mobile phones, internet usage, emails and instant messaging.

It is argued that both Wikileaks and Snowden released information to increase awareness about the dark areas of government, the areas where there is very little transparency in regards to decision making and even less in regards to accountability. The amount of data that both Wikileaks and Snowden released however pales in comparison in regards to the biggest release of data and documentation under what is termed as The Panama Papers.

The Panama Papers comprise of over 2.6 terabytes of data and include approximately 11.5 million documents in the form of emails, photos, Pdf files and internal database information.  It is the single biggest leak in history so far, but what is it and what does it all mean?

Alex Winter’s documentary of the same name The Panama Papers rips open the biggest global corruption scandal in history. It starts with a simple message of “Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in Data?” and sends journalists down a path which leads to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chinese Politburo members and former Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson to name a few of the high-profile leaders, politicians and celebrities hiding away billions and billions of dollars in a bid to avoid paying tax.

Winter’s fascinating documentary focuses on the painstaking collaboration that occurred between Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest newspapers in Germany and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), where journalists – often at great risk to their own lives – started to untangle the web of deceit around tax avoidance and the shift of billions of dollars of money through offshore and shell accounts lead by multi-national Panamanian firm Mossack Fonesca. Mossack Fonesca, powerfully aligned with offices around the world often had criminal clients with strong connections to organised crime and arguably lauded over the biggest international conspiracy in modern times.

Over 370 journalists spanning some 70 countries were involved in the data interpretation and Winter’s The Panama Papers expertly tells the story of some of those whom were intimately involved, illustrating the lengths required to safeguard not only the journalists but the whole effort itself, for the long arm of corruption was never far away. In presenting The Panama Papers Winter contributes towards shining a light over the dark areas of government and business following on from the work of Wikileaks and Snowden in illuminating corruption and greed.

Since the release of The Panama Papers, it is estimated that almost $1.2 billion dollars has been recovered in back-taxes and penalties. Winters riveting documentary of the same name can only assist in helping people understanding the lengths to which the wealthy will go to in order to sequester money and to avoid tax. It’s scary and confronting but something that definitely needs to be dealt with – power, government and money do not make for good bedfellows.

We can only wonder what the next big release of data will be about and brace ourselves.

 

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