Financial reporting on the Panama Papers and Speculative Outcomes


Yesterday evening journalists began to emerge from the depths of 2.6tb of data extracting recognizable names that have been hiding billions of dollars in lucrative locations with farcical letterbox companies. So far much of the Western press has been focused on the Icelandic prime minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, and Vladimir Putin, while we anticipate much more sensitive information will be revealed over the coming weeks I want to evaluate some of the methods of financial journalism and speculate on some of the potential consequences of the Panama Papers.

As journalists beginning methodologically scanning and analyzing the millions of documents it is worth considering the methods and distribution of this type of information. At Moneylab#2 Paul Radu from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project gave an in-depth over view about uncovering and reporting on money laundering.

His presentation highlights how using ‘follow the money’ tactics the OCCRP uncovers money laundering and financial corruption on a large scale and at great risk and danger to the journalists and reporters involved. Information initially gets ‘leaked’ to a specific media organization that then holds the rights to sharing it with other media outlets who are willing to help analyze and publish the information. In the case of the Panama papers they are currently held on behalf of the ICIJ (The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists). I share a desire with many others for the full 2.6tb to be made publicly accessible, however, according to the ICIJ, this cannot be done until all the personal information has been censored or removed. Once files are verified and appropriately censored by ICIJ they are uploaded to so far, 149 or 11 million have been checked, censored and uploaded.

ICIJ is forced to control the distribution to ensure no names or addresses go into public circulation that could lead to expensive legal cases or prosecution from any pissed off billionaires indicted in the Panama Papers. The manual process of censoring legally sensitive information to protect themselves from minor infringements of personal data, while simultaneously uncovering such large scale illicit practices highlights the absurd methods that have to be taken to make such information public. All the data must be manually checked by a small team at ICIJ because if they were to release it into the wild as is they would face similar reprimands to Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning. The protection of Whiteblowers and journalists should be top priority and there must be other ways of distributing the core files such as this to a wider audience without sending them off to the mainstream press one by one.
Without access to the source, the public is left to interpret these events through ‘newsworthy’ headlines and informative info- graphics. A much richer investigation and interpretation of these events could be conducted through direct access to the documents. At Moneylab we aim to further the creative response to such events beyond the simple info-graphic into interventions, actions and public discussion. We are interested in artists who are tracing the methods and models used in financial corruption to produce their own interventions and creative interpretations of these actions.

'Loophole4all' By Paolo Cirio

Loophole4all by Paolo Cirio

Paolo Cirio and his project the artist lists and sells certificates of ownership for different letterbox companies on the Cayman Islands. Or the actions of artists Núria Güell & Levi Orta who as part of their ‘Arte Político Degenerado’ series created a tax haven with artist money expropriated from Spanish banks. These projects are examples of artists using leaked public information as material to provoke and interrogate further debate around the subject of tax evasion and money laundering. In a few days the Panama Papers headline will pass and the core team at ICIJ will be whittling through the stack of data verifying names, making connections and legitimizing the classified information in over 149 million files. The info graphic visual culture that has become the typical way to communicate this type of information will blend into the media backdrop along with a handful of nervous politicians and phony businesses that will similarly retreat out of the spotlight of public scrutiny. By making the information public you can extend the creative response to the event that will go guther than flashy headlines and into the collective imagination of society. Such reduced headlines lead to more simplified narratives that are not adequate enough responses to the scale of systematic corruption that the Panama Papers will eventually reveal.

On a more general note, I believe the scale of the Panama Papers will have a much longer and sustained effect on social democracy and trust between citizen and state. More news on the systematic scale of money laundering and institutional tax evasion will continue to erode our collective sense of ethical and moral understanding and perpetuate further disdain and distrust towards governments and banks. As the regular line-up of global corporations and startled politicians use this event to repeatedly state ‘they are not legally doing anything wrong’, they will continue to take no responsibility for the ethical and moral damages that these actions have on the relation between citizen and state. This results in what Evgeny Morozov describes as the ‘crisis of legitimization’, which can be seen as the impotence of social democracy to operate under global capitalism and the expansion and outsourcing of state governance to global tech firms and share economy applications.
Andreas Antonopoulos, a bitcoin entrepreneur, seconds this notion by predicting that the Panama Papers will lead to further criminalization of cryptography and bans on bitcoin rather than any judicial sentencing for the individuals or organizations involved. Although I hope this isn’t the case his comments reflect not only the (dis)belief in law & governance to reprimand this type of behavior but the way in which governments use these opportunities to implement increased network surveillance to prevent cryptographic or encrypted communication that facilitate this type of information to be made public in the first place. Another common and equally disheartening comment I have heard is ‘they were doing it all along and now we know’, which is akin to the type of response you would say to someone or something you already distrust and expected no less. It is not the shock but the scale of the Panama Papers that will hopefully lead to some changes to accountability and financial transparency. There are already some exciting possibilities unfolding – for example a snap election in Iceland would potentially give the Pirate Party a full majority in parliament (boingboing). Rather than look for more ways to incriminate cryptography and encryption it is an opportune moment to start looking at cryptography and blockchain technology to force financial corporations to become accountable and transparent when it comes to paying their taxes.