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Three journalists who worked on the Panama Papers have been describing their work on the data, a massive leak that revealed the offshore holdings of politicians, business leaders and celebrities worldwide.

Freelancer Scilla Alecci, Asahi Shimbun reporter Toshihiro Okuyama and Kyodo News reporter Yasuomi Sawa attended a symposium at Tokyo’s Waseda University in early June. The leak was first reported in April and has led to the resignations of a number of public officials.

“Although the names and addresses of subjects under investigation have been released to the public online, we are the only people in Japan with direct access to the Panama Papers themselves,” Okuyama said. He added, this gives them a “moral obligation” to share the findings with the public.

In an unprecedented undertaking, around 400 journalists in 76 countries spent more than a year in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to analyze the data leaked from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm based in Panama. The leak exposed how wealthy individuals have set up offshore companies that can be used to hide assets.

The 2.6 terabytes of emails, faxes, corporate registration documents, financial spreadsheets, copies of passports, articles of incorporation, shareholder records and suchlike were saved on a Google-like search engine specifically developed by the Washington-based ICIJ for the Panama Papers project.

The search engine required multistep authentication to access, said Alecci, an Italian who studied journalism at Waseda.

Until an ICIJ embargo on the publication of articles was lifted on April 4 Japan time, reporters had exchanged encrypted emails to prevent leaks. Special software called Oxwall, with functions similar to those of Facebook, was developed so the journalists could share their findings and exchange ideas on how to interview subjects without raising the suspicion of their targets.

“It was quite revolutionary in that way,” said Sawa, referring to the use of the latest technologies throughout the investigative project.

However, the three panelists agreed that the investigation was laborious. The procedure began simply by typing in keywords, such as typical Japanese names, places and well-known corporations at random into the search engine to narrow down the data to anything that could be related to Japan.

“A combination of ‘Japan’ and ‘PEP’ (Politically Exposed Person), a codeword used within Mossack Fonseca, was also used in the search to obtain leads,” Alecci said.

As the names of individuals on documents were written in romaji, a Romanized form of Japanese words, the journalists had to check them carefully against official documents.

After that initial narrowing-down, they analyzed the documents one by one to find new clues and patterns of action until they managed to gather sufficient data to form a case for interviewing the subjects under investigation.

Eventually, around 400 Japanese individuals and companies, including major trading firms Marubeni Corp. and Itochu Corp., were found to have been listed as shareholders or directors of at least 270 entities in offshore tax havens.

“Personal information is heavily protected so it was hard to obtain information on names and addresses,” Sawa said when citing Japan-specific obstacles he came across in the paper trails. “We would reach dead ends during the investigation as it was difficult to verify the leads with official documents.”

Under Japanese law, the government is allowed to withhold corporate information it possesses if it deems disclosure would put a company at a competitive disadvantage.

Court documents and criminal records, the basic tools of investigative journalism, which are made public in countries such as the United States and Britain, are in most circumstances not available to the public in Japan.

The project was unusual in that it saw close cooperation between the Asahi Shimbun and Kyodo News, two organizations that would normally be competitors.

Sawa joked that he never thought he would be sharing information or exchanging notes with a reporter from another media outlet, let alone the Asahi. He added, the experience gave him a different perspective on competition and cooperation.

Another Japan-specific factor Sawa came to question in thinking about investigative journalism was lifetime employment, which many companies still offer. He said this may discourage journalists from working to get scoops, although these in other countries can advance a reporter’s career.

“It’s not surprising if there are reporters who want to avoid taking any actions that could get them in trouble so they can work at the same media company for a long time, rather than writing scoops that may stir controversy and then enable them to seek work at a better company,” he said.

The leaked data were obtained by German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung from an anonymous source, and then shared with the ICIJ with which over 100 other media partners collaborated to sift through the piles of information.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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