Latin American journalists investigating the Panama Papers suffer criticism and retaliation

While journalists in Ecuador who were part of the global journalistic investigation known as the Panama Papers are facing a “campaign of harassment” led by the country’s President Rafael Correa and his followers, in Peru and Panama, the most adverse reactions have come from the traditional media and civil society, respectively.

After months of research, the Panama Papers investigation was internationally released on April 3 in media around the world. The investigation was led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) after receiving 11.5 million leaked documents from German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which initially received them from an anonymous source.

Journalists from various countries convened by ICIJ – including 96 journalists from 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean – published stories that reveal cases of politicians, civil servants, businessmen and other public figures linked to the Panamanian firm Mossack Fonseca, which the ICIJ says is one of the most important companies around the world that creates “shell companies” and that since the 70s has helped its clients to hide ownership of their assets in tax havens.

The investigations have generated a variety of reactions.

In Peru, for example, some newspapers that belong to Grupo El Comercio – a media conglomerate that accounts for about 80 percent of the written press – have questioned the origin of the leak and not those implicated in the investigations, according to Fabiola Torres López, editor and founder of Ojo Público, in an interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Ojo Público, a digital site specializing in investigative journalism, is one of three Peruvian media outlets called together by ICIJ for the international investigation. The others are Convoca and IDL-Reporteros.

According to the journalist, the reactions in Peru to the information published as part of the Panama Papers, which were released a week before presidential elections, have two levels. The first was the official reaction, ie. by institutions like the  Public Prosecutor or the National Superintendency of Tax Administration (Sunat).

On April 3, after Ojo Público published four reports, both the Prosecutor and Sunat opened an investigation for money laundering and tax fraud for the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca in Lima and raided its office.

The second level of impact, Torres López explained, has been in the political sphere, in reference to the elections and political parties, which remained silent in the days before the first round of voting. And there was also impact in the media space, the journalist added, in which the big Peruvian media groups have criticized the use of “hacked” information and affirmed the legality of offshore businesses, belittling, at first, the content of the investigations.

“We believe that it is more difficult now that politicians hide behind silence during this second round of elections, not mentioning the issue of tax fraud, because there are campaign contributions that come from offshore,” Torres López said.

One of the first reports published in Peru concerning the Panama Papers showed that part of the contributions to the campaign of Keiko Fujimori – the leading candidate in the presidential race and daughter of former president Alberto Fujimori who was convicted for corruption and crimes against humanity – came from an offshore company created in Delaware, with the help of Mossack Fonseca.

Torres López said that one of the first statements from Peruvian political sectors, regarding the Panama Papers, was recently given by Congress. However, she said, there are congressmen who are sitting and who face re-election that are involved in the Panama Papers, so Ojo Público doubts that the Congress is the best entity to investigate the case.

What Ojo Público wants is for the authorities to take on the investigations, the journalist stressed in reference to the Panama Papers reporting.

It is no coincidence, Torres López said, that an offshore company was created for the timber industry in Peru, where there is a high incidence of illegal logging in the Peruvian Amazon. Or, the journalist continued, that the businesses of the main investor of slot machines in Peru and in other Latin American countries works with an entire offshore structure.

“We are going to keep publishing [investigations about the Panama Papers], and we are not going to stop until there is an announcement from those who could be president of Peru in less than two months,” Torres López emphasized.

Regarding Ecuador, the journalists who participated in the Panama Papers investigations – like the award-winning journalist Arturo Torres, who is a member of ICIJ and investigative editor of Ecuadoran newspaper El Comercio – have been called to appear before the Council of Citizen Participation and Social Control to discuss the investigation.

Also, the Justice Commission of the Assembly announced that they would also call on them, Torres said.

“We are under suspicion and practically in the seat of the accused,” Torres said in conversation with the Knight Center.

The Ecuadorian journalist said that they have been insulted and accused of allegedly not revealing all information contained in the Panama Papers, especially since President Rafael Correa published on April 5, from his Twitter account, the names of the six journalists who participated in the project.

Regarding the affected Ecuadorian journalists – Arturo Torres, Andrés Jaramillo and Alberto Araujo of newspaper El Comercio in Quito; Mónica Almeida and Xavier Reyes from newspaper El Universo in Guayaquil, and Paul Mena from San Francisco University in Quito – Claudio Paolillo from the Inter American Press Association, held Correa responsible for the physical integrity of the journalists and for his “constant policy of intimidation” against those that “were carrying out their work to report.”

According to Torres, by publishing stories about Ecuadorians with interests and business in tax havens, using Mossack Fonseca, they have informed readers about issues of public interest.

Torres said that newspaper El Comercio has prioritized revealing issues of public interest that affect the Ecuadorian community. In this sense, Torres continued, they have published two stories: one about the creation of offshore companies by Grupo Ortega Trujillo in Panama; and another about the relationship between a Chinese company, which has several contracts with the state, and companies that operate in tax havens.

On the other hand, Lourdes de Obaldía, director of Panamanian newspaper La Prensatold the Knight Center that the most harsh reactions to the investigations published by her newspaper have come from civil society. The government has not said anything, she explained.

De Obaldía said that what worries the newspaper is that civil society is “seeing the tree and not the forest.”

Panama, for many decades, saw “absurd levels of corruption,” de Obaldía said. But, she added, it stopped being a tax haven long ago.

“I think that [the revelation of the investigations of the Panama Papers] is one of the hardest blows that the country has received, but that Panama will emerge stronger, because there will be a before and after in terms of transparency,” she said.

They have not only received attacks from civil society, according to de Obaldía, but also media owned by former president Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014). Other colleagues have shown their solidarity with the workers of La Prensa, she added.

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.