96 Latin American journalists collaborate on The Panama Papers, a global investigative project

By Claudia BuenoTeresa Mioli and Silvia Higuera

Nearly 100 journalists from 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean worked on the global investigation known as the Panama Papers that is making headlines across the world this week.

The Panama Papers is an international investigation of about 11.5 million records from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) alleged is “one of the world’s top creators of shell companies, corporate structures that can be used to hide ownership of assets.”

An anonymous source leaked the documents to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which then shared the documents with ICIJ so the organization could index, organize and analyze them, according to ICIJ. Then, a group of 353 reporters working in 25 languages and 80 countries from around the world joined the ICIJ team in its investigations.

Renowned Latin American journalists were involved with the project at the highest levels as part of the main team at ICIJ. Argentinian Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director at ICIJ, is one of two project managers for the investigation and also served as editor. She was joined by journalists from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Mexico.

In the data, there were emails, financial spreadsheets, passports and corporate records to comb through, according to ICIJ. The organization used 35 servers to extract and index information from the files, according to Univision. The information then was translated into an easily searchable format for the journalists to use.

Emilia Díaz-Struck, research editor of the project and co-founder of Venezuelan news site Armando.info, told the Knight Center that in order to share the information, the project used three platforms: a searchable database for the documents, a communication hub for the journalists (Global I-Hub) and a data visualization module (Linkurious).

With data covering the period from 1977 to December 2015, it would be impossible for just one organization to analyze the documents.

ICIJ contacted journalists from around the world who were part of the consortium to collaborate on the project. Díaz-Struck said that number eventually grew after collaborators thought of new journalists who could help with the large amount of information.

To be part of the group, journalists needed to be willing to share information and also adhere to strict security protocols, Díaz-Struck said. She explained that as part of the investigative process, journalists not only learned information about the various cases connected to The Panama Papers, but also how to use technology and cyber-security measures.

Latin American and Caribbean reporters working on the project came from news organizations and investigative centers in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The importance of the Panama Papers is not only that 2.6 terabytes of data were leaked. In any large investigative project, reporters conduct rigorous research and fact-checking exercises.

“Something I’ve been explaining is that the documents are a starting point. People talk about a leak, but this is an investigation and that’s why this process lasted for a year of reviewing documents,” Díaz-Struck said. “And after reviewing the documents, then they began the reporting that goes with the investigation. That is, to search for the documents in their home countries, public documents, international databases and also to conduct interviews and fieldwork.”

She explained that journalists also were able to upload documents to cross check information and share it with other reporters.

Additionally, in order to understand the data, Díaz-Struck said the journalists had to understand the context: how a tax haven works, how these companies operate, applicable policies, etc.

Most of the countries adopted a similar process of analyzing the data, according to UOL journalist Fernando Rodrigues who was one of 12 Brazilians to work on the project. In a blog post for UOL, Rodrigues explained that the data was kept secret until a date and time of publication agreed upon by all partners.

After a year of investigations, the project and investigations were revealed on April 3.

Stories about the leaks have taken over the front pages of publications and news sites across the world. News organizations and journalism centers around Latin America, like La Nación in ArgentinaCIPER in Chile, El Comercio in Ecuador, ABC Color in Paraguay, La Prensa in Panama, Proceso in Mexico and Brazilian news portal UOL, have published stories on the leak.

The data “contains details on more than 214,000 offshore entities connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories,” according to ICIJ. The investigation allegedly touches billionaires, sports stars and criminals.

“I think these kind of exercises with high-impact confirm a methodology in which several journalists increasingly believe, and they are a chance to work in a collaborative manner between different journalists on complex, high-impact issues,” Carlos Eduardo Huertas, director of CONNECTAS who also worked on the project, said to the Knight Center. “It can be achieved with serious and responsible teams. And this, I believe, is what happened in this case.”

Since the project was released, some have seen it as a positive sign for the future of journalism in the region and around the world.

“It’s important for journalism in Latin America, but also for journalism around the world. We say that journalism is dying, that it’s finished, but I think that a project like this shows us, on the contrary, how journalism can advance, how it can use the new technologies to improve and to offer quality and investigative work to readers,” Díaz-Struck said. “And how journalistic collaboration in these cases, when stories are very complex, helps to tell stories that have a global impact and, as we see, that readers are interested in. The audience has been interested, has been reading, and sees that the role of journalism is important.”

Following the leak, Mossack Fonseca released a statement in which it said that "recent media reports have portrayed an inaccurate view of the services that we provide and, despite our efforts to correct the record, misrepresented the nature of our work and its role in global financial markets."​

Some governments have launched investigations into reports stemming from the leak.​

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.