Panama Papers show irreplaceable role of newspapers


“Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data?”

So began an encrypted online conversation between an anonymous source and the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in early 2015. The whistleblower, who claimed to fear for his life, promised to turn over a large cache of sensitive banking data to the paper under the condition that his identity remain anonymous.

More than a year later, with the help of the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, over 11.5 million documents from a Panamanian law firm have been made public in what has been labeled as the biggest data leak in history. These so-called “Panama Papers” detail the secret offshore dealings of some of the richest and most powerful people in the world, including current and former world leaders, powerful businessmen and even popular celebrities, such as Lionel Messi and Jackie Chan.

The political consequences for those implicated in the reports have been swift and severe. Massive protests in Iceland led to the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, who was exposed as a significant investor for several Icelandic banks with ties to the government. In the UK, Prime Minister David Cameron — a long-time advocate for government transparency and closing tax loopholes — has been facing criticism for dodging questions as to whether he personally benefited from an offshore holding company owned in his father’s name. The Papers also shed light on the rampant corruption among political elite in Russia, China, Brazil and dozens of other countries.

As journalists continue to comb through the mind-boggling 2.6 terabytes of data, new revelations will surely continue to emerge in the weeks to come. There are many questions that remain unanswered, such as the reasons behind the relative lack of Americans included on the list. But one thing is for sure: the Panama Papers will go down in history as one of the biggest and most significant leaks in history.

There is a long legacy of news leaks causing massive political turmoil. From the anonymous inside source known only as “Deep Throat,” who helped reporters from the Washington Post expose the Watergate scandal in 1972, to Edward Snowden leaking NSA documents to the Guardian, whistleblowers, with the help of newspapers, have exposed scandals,  brought down presidents and sparked international dialogues. The digital age has fundamentally altered the way in which we store and share information, but whistleblowers still choose to disclose their revelations via traditional media outlets.

There are several reasons why newspapers are indispensible in data leaks such as the Panama Papers. Newspapers offer a certain degree of trustworthiness and legitimacy that an anonymous online posting may lack. Reporters can provide context and summarize the documents in order to make them accessible to the public. In addition, newspapers can stagger the release of new information over time, ensuring that the issue remain timely and relevant.

But perhaps most importantly, newspapers are able to properly vet the material and redact anything deemed to be irrelevant or unfit for public scrutiny. One of the criticisms levied against sites like Wikileaks is that unedited documents may contain information that could put American lives at risk.

The Panama Papers show, even in digital age, newspapers remain society’s best bet for holding  powerful individuals accountable to the public.

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