The Panama Papers sparked the investigation of a lifetime — decoding millions of documents that uncovered countless tax evasion and money laundering schemes by some of the world’s most rich and powerful people. And an MU grad and her team were behind it all.
The saga began when an anonymous source provided German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung with more than 11 million confidential documents, the largest amount of confidential information in history. The documents detailed information about more than 214,000 offshore companies listed by Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.
Given the size of the leak, the newspaper enlisted the help of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which distributed the documents to journalists around the world for investigation and analysis. Süddeutsche Zeitung was among the papers that published the first news reports and 149 of the documents in early April.
ICIJ Deputy Director Marina Walker is a former MU journalism master’s student from Argentina who graduated in 2005. As deputy director, she co-managed the investigation.
Michael Grinfeld, Walker’s former advisor and professor at MU, says she was always an incredibly talented student, and he’s not surprised by how far she’s come and by the work she’s done with the ICIJ. “She would ask great questions, and she would work very hard,” Grinfeld says.
He says he’s impressed — both with the amount of collaboration that took place and the leadership role Walker played in organizing it.
“It does bespeak the value of good investigative journalism, and that’s becoming a rarer event because of the economic dynamics of (the industry) today,” Grinfeld says. “Marina and all the people she works with are performing a service that is incredibly important to people.”
Walker shared some investigation details, including information on what’s next.
Did you know that you wanted to do investigative journalism when you were at MU?
Yes. I come from a country that is not very transparent and where there’s a lot of corruption. I was a journalist there before coming to the United States. But I always felt a little limited for two reasons: One, because we don’t have a freedom of information law in Argentina and two, because I had not been trained in investigative techniques. I didn’t have too many role models where I lived. I realized this is what I want to do, and this is the kind of accountability reporting that matters and really interests me.
How do the Panama Papers compare to other projects the ICIJ has done?
It’s the biggest both in size of material and number of people involved. We have worked with 376 journalists in nearly 80 countries. It is the biggest journalistic collaboration of all time, and it’s also the most important in terms of the impact. To have such a swift and strong response in such a short amount of time has been really shocking.
What do you think will be the long-term effects of the Papers?
I think it’s entirely clear that secrecy is no longer going to be a possibility. That’s either because there are going to be leaks like this or because people are tired of secrecy and of certain wealthy and connected individuals’ abilities to hide their business and financial affairs. I think, generally, everyone would benefit from more transparency around company ownership. The most important thing is not the little or mid-sized businessman who hides his taxes. The problem with tax havens is all the big-time criminals — the terrorists, drug dealers and traffickers — who use the secrecy of the offshore wells to hide their crimes.
What are the next steps for the ICIJ?
Our members and partners in the investigation continue working and developing stories. We also have an important milestone in the beginning of May, when we are going to release a database of all of the names of people and companies associated with the leak. It’s not going to be the 11 million documents. But we are releasing a structured database, where people will be able to type a name, and if the name is a match, you will be able to see in a graph mode that company and that person.
How do you think this investigation will impact the public’s perception of journalism?
I think the Panama Papers give a lot of hope to investigative journalism and also to critical citizens. It shows the collaboration of media organizations of all sizes and points of view: big and small, nonprofit, for profit, more to the left, more to the right. They all came together, they all left their egos at the door and they collaborated as equals with the only purpose of getting the best story for the common good. That is almost too good to be true, but it happened. This is the investigative reporting of the future.