Where investigative journalism in the 21st century is concerned, no piece has rocked the very foundation of publishing and caused a worldwide stir quite like the Panama Papers Exposé. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Frederik Obermaier and his colleague, the dubious business dealings of law firm Mossack Fonseca has been brought to light.
Before his participation at the Singapore Writers Festival, the investigative journalist from Germany offers Arman Shah insights into the unveiling of questionable offshore accounts that involve some of the world’s most dangerous criminals and political leaders.
When did you first develop an interest in writing?
In high school, but I didn’t even dare work for the school magazine because I didn’t think I could write. I was studying political sciences at university, but when I met students who were studying journalism, I was thrilled by what they were learning. So, I took up journalism alongside political sciences and never regretted it.
What motivated you to pursue investigative journalism as a professional career?
I was always fascinated by investigative journalists like Seymour Hersh, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. They investigated scandals for months and years and strengthened democracy through uncovering wrongdoings.
I myself stumbled upon investigative journalism by accident. In 2012, after my two-year traineeship at German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Hans Leyendecker – the most renowned investigative journalist in Germany – asked me to help with his assignment.
He was investigating the mysterious deaths of German motorcycle club members and asked me if I wanted to join his investigative unit. It was a small team of only four people back then, and it felt like my senior colleagues had thrown me into cold water by giving me such a big assignment from day one; it was thrilling.
How did you get involved with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ)? What has it taught you about collaborative journalism?
In 2013, my colleague Bastian Obermayer and I had a great opportunity to be part of an international team of journalists who were investigating what is now known as the Offshore-Leaks. After that project, ICIJ invited us to be part of the consortium. I was 29 at the time and being asked to join was such a big honour.
Bastian and I believe in the power of collaborative investigative journalism. In the past, investigative journalists were lone wolves who didn’t share anything, but projects like the Panama Papers have radically shown what we can accomplish if we work together.
Let’s discuss the Panama Papers. How did you get involved with the Mossack Fonseca exposé that shook the publishing world?
Mossack Fonseca is one of the largest providers of anonymous shell companies. Some of the world’s biggest scumbags have used the law firm’s anonymous offshore companies to disguise their business dealings.
Bastian and I did try to expose Mossack Fonseca before, but the case was like an impenetrable wall; a black hole. Every time our research led us closer to progress, it usually spelled the end of the investigation. When I heard that an anonymous source who we now call John Doe was offering data about the company, I was thrilled.
Can you explain the nature of your communications with the whistleblower, John Doe?
I hope you understand that we need to keep some things secret to protect our source. The only thing I can say about the communication is that it was encrypted.
What was going through your mind when you saw such sensitive information and its dangerous involvement of so many powerful political leaders?
The more names of notorious individuals we found, the more scared I was. They were members of drug cartels, the mafia, Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, the best friend of Vladimir Putin, guys close to Gaddafi – in order words, questionable people you normally do not want to mess with.
Fortunately, there has been no threat to my life. However, our colleagues in Russia were branded US agents and had to leave their country for some time. In Hong Kong, the Executive Chief Editor of Ming Pao newspaper was dismissed hours after the Panama Papers were made public.
The website of our Tunisian partner – the online magazine Inkyfada – was attacked by hackers after it reported the offshore connections of a former adviser to the president. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa tweeted the names of the journalists involved in the investigation. The message was clear: he wanted to put them under pressure.
How do you feel about the treatment the other journalists received?
All these happenings are not acceptable. Society needs free press, and if the rich and powerful try to attack that, we should all raise our voices. If you fight one of us, you fight all of us – you fight free society.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of publishing the Panama Papers exposé?
It was good to see that the Panama Papers have caused an international debate about tax-havens and anonymous companies and their threat to society and democracy.
You’ll be attending this year’s Singapore Writers Festival. What teachings do you hope to impart to those who are inspired by your work and aspire to be like you?
For me, it is a great honour to be part of the Singapore Writers Festival. I hope I can share some of my experiences working on the Panama Papers exposé and give insights into this thrilling investigation.