The Panama Papers: An Object Lesson in Data Journalism and International Tax Evasion

It is every journalist’s dream to publish a large investigative article uncovering the unethical deeds of a public official or a systematic failure. Sometimes, this comes in the form of large data dumps handed to the press by whistleblowers. Previously, the biggest data dump was the Offshore Leaks Database, and it boasted 2.5 million documents at 260 gigabytes in size.

The record was blown out of the water recently with the revelation of the Panama Papers, an act of whistleblowing resulting in 11.5 million documents comprised of text documents, emails, photos, and databases for a grand total of 2.6 terabytes of data. For comparison, a 3-minute song, stored as an MP3 file, would need to be duplicated over 860,000 times to fill 2.6 terabytes of data.

The Panama Papers is the biggest leak in history first delivered to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. The leak contains documents exposing world leaders that used Panamanian company Mossack Fonseca to create and house offshore companies that are used to hide their money to avoid taxation. The documents were collected from the private databases of Mossack Fonseca since the 1970s and sent to Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2015.

The purpose of the Panama Papers is to expose global leaders that have used offshore companies to hide their money from their respective governments. It’s important to note that offshore companies are not themselves illegal. Many people make use of offshore companies to keep their financial lives private, including recently implicated actress Emma Stone, who was found to own an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. Her spokesperson asserted that Stone is only seeking privacy, and that publication of such information threatens her safety.

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On the other side of the coin, the former Prime Minister of Iceland was one of the first global officials to be implicated in the Panama Papers. The Panama Papers revealed that former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and his wife had claims to millions of pounds in a series of failed Icelandic banks through offshore companies, leading many in Iceland to accuse the Prime Minister of a conflict of interest. At first, he denied involvement and showed that he no longer had a stake in the offshore company. His wife continues to have her name in those companies. Later that week, Gunnlaugsson resigned from his position amid cries from Icelandic citizens to resign.

The Panama Papers are still being revealed slowly. A searchable database is available through the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists so that anyone in the world can look through Mossack Fonseca’s offshore offerings.