Collaborative mega investigation of the ‘Pandora Papers’ increases relevance of small and independent media in Latin America

When the journalistic investigation known as the “Pandora Papers” was published in October 2021, thousands of cases of offshore companies, secret properties and hidden fortunes were revealed in media from all over the world. They belonged to hundreds of powerful figures from politics, business, sports and entertainment.

The “Pandora Papers,” considered the largest journalistic collaboration in history, was led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and had the participation of more than 600 journalists from more than 150 media in 117 countries and territories. From Latin America, 30 media outlets and more than 100 journalists from 19 countries were involved.

A large part of the participating Latin American media were independent organizations, and small and medium-sized journalistic enterprises, whose relevance was strengthened as a result of this leak. This was not only because of the impact that their investigations have had in their countries, but also because they worked hand in hand with large media from all over the world under the same conditions and standards, according to some of the journalists involved.

“Every single media group in Brazil had talked about what we had revealed, so it improved our relevance, it made more people look at us and understand that we are producing great journalism,” Guilherme Waltenberg, journalist from digital Brazilian newspaper Poder360, one of the media outlets that participated in the Pandora Papers, told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR). “We followed the best standards of the world, and I think it is a chance for us to show the rest of the country that we are also a good option to give them access to relevant information.”

Guilherme Waltenberg, journalist at digital news site Poder360, is one of the journalists from Brazil who worked on the investigation.

Guilherme Waltenberg is one of the journalists at Brazilian digital news site Poder360 who worked on the investigation. (Photo: Poder360)

As in previous investigations based on document leaks, such as the “Panama Papers” and the “Paradise Papers,” for ICIJ it was important to put all selected media on equal footing to collaborate on the “Pandora Papers,” regardless of size or structure, provided that they comply with certain journalistic and ethical guidelines and that above all they are willing to participate in the radical sharing model the consortium uses to address these types of collaborations.

“The important thing for us is to have journalists who are willing to share with everyone, to handle the information at the same level. That is, to put egos aside and treat everyone on the same level,” Emilia Díaz-Struck, Latin America coordinator for ICIJ and data editor for the “Pandora Papers,” told LJR. “This issue of whether they are large or small media is diluted. It is a group of journalists who collaborate for a long time to investigate a topic together.”

According to some Latin American journalists who worked on this investigation, participating in cross-border collaborations allows journalistic ventures to join the trust network that the ICIJ has been weaving since its foundation in 1997.

This collaboration also helped them to deepen findings on previous corruption cases, such as the Lava Jato case or the Banca Privada d'Andorra case, and increase their impact in the public agendas of their respective countries.

“We are strengthened by the fact of working and being able to network with colleagues from other countries, knowing that we have support in other countries and that those colleagues can lean on us when they get stories. It's like building up that network of journalists that helps one another,” Patricia Marcano, editorial coordinator of the independent journalism platform Armando.Info and coordinator of the Venezuelan team of journalists who worked on the “Pandora Papers” investigation, told LJR.

Never in a document leak had so many high-level officials –including presidents and former presidents– been found as in the "Pandora Papers," with more than 330 politicians worldwide, according to ICIJ. More than ninety of those are from Latin American countries. , which makes the region the area of the world with the highest presence of high-level figures in the leak.

Of the 35 presidents, past presidents, and world leaders who appear in the documents, 14 are from Latin America. According to the ICIJ, Argentina is the country in the region with the greatest presence of final beneficiaries of offshore companies and the third that appears the most in the entire leak.

Venezuela, Guatemala and Brazil also appear in the top 10 by country. In the case of the latter, the participating Brazilian media found that current Minister of Economy, Paulo Guedes; and the president of the Central Bank, Roberto Campos Neto, allegedly have companies in tax havens.

All of this explains the relevance of the work of the region's media in the “Pandora Papers,” according to the participating journalists.

“For the first time we are presenting a possible illegal offshore company of a public official,” Waltenberg said. “It was so relevant to show that the most important minister has an active offshore company that I don't think they really had the time to defend him. A few days ago, Paul Guedes, the minister of economy was summoned to the Congress. He had to explain what is going on and why he didn’t close it. That’s big.”

Why are leaks still relevant?

The leak that gave rise to the “Pandora Papers” consisted of 11.9 million documents of multiple extensions and formats. This represented 400,000 more files than the “Panama Papers” in 2016.

In addition, ICIJ says the “Pandora Papers” come from 14 firms that manage the creation and management of offshore companies, unlike the leak five years ago, in which only one firm was involved.

Más de 30 medios y equipos periodísticos de la región trabajaron en la colaboración periodística más grande de la historia.

More than 30 media organizations and journalists teams of the region worked on the biggest journalistic collaboration in history.

But despite the increase in volume and level of detail of the leaked data, one of the greatest challenges for journalists has been to explain to society why one more leak like the “Pandora Papers” is relevant to their lives.

"With each leak we have to explain again why it is important and what is valuable, because they are secrets and plots that remain hidden precisely because there are powerful people who want them to stay that way and the task is to shed light on that," Marcano said.

Although having offshore companies is not illegal, the secrecy that this type of firm offers can serve to hide illicit money flows, acts of corruption, money laundering and tax evasion, among other illegal activities, according to ICIJ.

The media that have published reports derived from the “Pandora Papers” have emphasized the importance of distinguishing between the leak of the data itself and the stories of public interest that are derived from that data.

"The leak as such is the starting point for an investigation and for us deciding what this investigation is going to do is to think about what is the public interest component of that information that has remained hidden from citizens," Díaz-Struck said. "It is the history of journalism scaled to levels of –in this case– almost a tsunami of data and how to mine it, but the principle remains the same: to detect stories that are of great relevance to citizens."

This difference is what means that, for example, journalists do not disclose all the documents or publish all the names of the people who are mentioned in them, as some demand.

"People want you to publish the lists of the people who are involved, but journalism is not to publish a list of people and that's it," Marcano said. “It is what makes the difference between a journalistic job and a job that is not responsible. We are all very responsibly looking for stories of public interest, and also contrasting. Those involved are called several weeks in advance to get their side of things.”

The experience that independent media have gained through global collaborations on leaks has been reflected in irrefutable journalistic investigations, more nurtured and with more impact, such as those of the “Pandora Papers”, Waltenberg and Marcano agree.

“In my opinion, Pandora Papers was even bigger than Panama Papers, Paradise Papers. For some reasons, one of them, because journalists already know how to investigate those files because it's not the first investigation. They are more prepared, more experienced, when it comes to analyzing all that data,” Waltenberg said.

“If the workload is heavy and the personnel and resources are limited, what does Armando.Info gain? Obviously, in addition to the prestige and the impact that these investigations could have on public life, let's say that as a media outlet, how it is strengthened,” Marcano added.

How do you carry out a mega investigation like the ‘Pandora Papers’?

Journalistic collaborations such as the "Pandora Papers" imply organization and logistics of titanic dimensions. For this reason, the ICIJ and its members around the world have developed a methodology that guarantees the confidentiality, secrecy and good handling of the data in the investigations that are carried out.

 1. Organization of the data

ICIJ receives the data, analyzes it and organizes it in a browsable database. For this, the organization developed Datashare, an open source tool that allows them to upload huge amounts of data and search them safely and with encryption.

“They are super complex documents, in thousands of formats and forms. There are, for example, PDFs, sometimes 10,000 pages long. There are images, Word documents, audio files… All of this is uploaded to that system that our team has developed and is made searchable,” Díaz-Struck explained.

Datashare, which is available for journalists to use in their newsrooms, includes Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technologies, which enable the digitization of manuscript text.

Emilia Díaz-Struck is the Latin America coordinator for ICIJ and data editor for the “Pandora Papers.

Emilia Díaz-Struck is the Latin America coordinator for ICIJ and data editor for the “Pandora Papers. (Photo: ICIJ)

2. Selection of media and team formation

After receiving and analyzing the leaked information, ICIJ determines which countries are represented in the data.

The organization locates media and journalists in those countries who meet certain journalistic, ethical and collaborative criteria. Some are journalists who are members of the organization or part of the network that the consortium has formed in previous projects.

“They are all great investigative journalists with a great amount of skills that, when combined, give strength to the investigation and help to deepen it. Some have the best live sources and others are very good, for example, in documents, others have a very good component of data work. Everyone can do everything but there are strengths in each one when the teams are assembled, ” Díaz-Struck said.

3. Data access

The ICIJ database is made available to the journalists summoned virtually. Given the confidentiality of the investigation, most media outlets limit access in their newsrooms to a few editors.

4. Record search

Journalists from each media outlet search the database according to different criteria. In the case of the “Pandora Papers,” the initial searches were based on previous cases of corruption in each country, public officials, former officials or figures of public interest who are or have been investigated in financial cases.

The system shows copies of passports, records of creation of offshore companies, spreadsheets of supplier companies, memoranda, checks, among other types of documents. These results give journalists clues about the stories they might find.

“We are detecting stories, we empty them into a shared file and then we begin to look at all the possible options that there may be for Venezuelan stories. Then we filter, we make a ranking of which topics are viable,” Marcano explained, regarding how the “Pandora Papers” team worked in Venezuela.

Thanks to machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) technologies, the platform is able to automatically detect names and organizations and extract entities. It also allows the journalist to load lists of figures and cross them with the general database, as well as mark documents, customize searches and filter results.

5. Story assignment

Once editors find potentially viable stories, they distribute the issues among their teams of reporters and they begin journalistic investigations in the traditional way.

6. Communication and coordination

For cross-border investigations, communication between participants is essential. ICIJ has Global iHub, a tool based on the open source technology Discourse that allows communication between all participants around the world.

"It's like a social network where people create groups and subgroups and share as they explore information and explore documents," Díaz-Struck said. "Our team has adjusted the tool to our needs and has incorporated all the security components, encryption, among others, so that people can communicate."

ICIJ has a general coordinator of the project, as well as regional coordinators around the world. It also has a person who helps with training journalists on the use of the tools. And in each country, the participating media organize their own coordination and hold periodic meetings on the progress of their investigations.

For the “Pandora Papers,” the Latin American media held meetings with the ICIJ coordinators once a month to share findings, cross-check information and see how the stories were connected.

The Consortium usually holds at least one face-to-face meeting when it comes to large-scale collaborations in order to strengthen the trust network and coordinate efforts. However, COVID-19 prevented this meeting for the “Pandora Papers,” which forced the team to improve their organization and remote collaboration methodologies.

7. Verification and contrast

Each media outlet makes sure to contrast the data of the leak with other types of documents, such as records of previous investigations and information obtained through public information requests, to ensure the veracity of the stories. Likewise, verification of the facts is carried out and the people indicated in the investigations are contacted to find out their side of things.

8. Publication

ICIJ and the media involved agree on a specific date and time to publish a first package of investigations. And each outlet schedules the release of its subsequent reports and follow-up articles for several weeks.

This post was originally written in Spanish and translated by Teresa Mioli