Remarks by Marina Walker Guevara at the OGP16 Plenary Session

Good afternoon and thank you to the Open Government Partnership for inviting me to join this important conversation.

I am here representing 376 investigative reporters from nearly 80 countries who for more than a year shared a big secret.

It all started with an encrypted message. An anonymous source offered German reporters Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier access to 11.5 million files, the largest trove of secret financial information ever made available to journalists. It was the kind of scoop that reporters are taught to keep to themselves and guard fiercely. The kind of revelation that would make any journalist a super star.

But instead of following instinct, tradition and their own egos, these journalists decided to share their scoop not just with one or two colleagues but with dozens of them. In fact, hundreds of them. Not just in their own country but in countries in five continents. And rather than race against one other, they helped one another. They created a virtual newsroom that transcended the borders of their countries and the politics and financial constraints of their newsrooms. A space in which everyone was united by the same ideals of collaborative investigative reporting in the public interest.  The reporters bonded over the task at hand: a story that was too important, too complex and too global for any individual journalist or media organization, no matter how big, to tackle on their own.

You don’t build this kind of community overnight. It took 20 years to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to develop the methodology and the trust that ultimately led to the work that we know today as the Panama Papers. At ICIJ we call it ‘radical sharing.’ The challenges we faced also pushed us to reach out to other professions, including engineers, developers and data analysts, to unlock the mysteries hidden inside the millions of files.

The stories revealed greed and corruption at the highest levels of political and economic power, from prime ministers and presidents to leading banks and sports figures. They exposed how politicians and criminals took advantage of the secrecy sold by tax havens, a parallel universe that allows you to bypass the laws that the rest of the citizens must follow.

It was those citizens who took to the streets in Reykjavik, in London and in Malta soon after the story broke worldwide in April. In Iceland, protestors threw eggs and yogurt at the Parliament building and ultimately forced their prime minister to resign. More resignations, raids and arrests followed in dozens of countries around the world.

Today, eight months later, there are at least 150 open criminal, civil or regulatory investigations in 79 countries. Tens of millions of dollars have been recovered by governments around the world and billions are being traced. Europol just announced that it has found thousands of connections between the Panama Papers and cases in its on files on drug trafficking, human trafficking, and Russian organized crime. It also found 116 links to Islamic terrorism.

My team has visited many countries after the release of the Panama Papers investigation and we have seen stricter laws in some places and greater transparency efforts in others, including a push for public registries of beneficial owners. Before Panama Papers it was tough to interest the public and even newspapers editors on stories about tax havens because, you know, tax havens are legal they told us. Perfectly legal, some said. Today, citizens are asking why are these offshore arrangements legal? Who made them legal? And they want to know more. They have made the connection between legally sanctioned global corruption and their own lives. They have understood that because of that corruption they are poorer, their children’s schools are worse, and their retirement years will be harder.

Like a French reader, Sophie, who wrote to ICIJ and told us: “I'am a little French woman and I must live with just 450 euros per month, and it's very hard...Thank you very much for saying out loud what everyone else is thinking!”

Despite the impact of the Panama Papers, we are under no illusion that the problem is fixed. In our travels and in our reporting we continue to see the impunity enjoyed by large banks, law firms and other enablers of the secrecy world. We continue to find well-intentioned but grossly under resourced government regulators, prosecutors’ offices, truth commissions and local assemblies. They are no match to an army of savvy and extremely well-paid accountants, consultants, corporate lawyers and bankers advising the offshore industry.

Investigative journalists uncovering financial secrecy and corruption, including many Panama Papers reporters, are facing threats, intimidation, retaliation and legal harassment. This is happening in repressive countries with little press freedom as well as in countries in Europe and elsewhere, with a long democratic tradition. Just in a few days the reporter and two whistleblowers who helped expose Luxemburg’s tax haven practices, an ICIJ investigation dubbed LuxLeaks, will stand trial for the second time in Luxembourg. Prosecutors there are seeking tougher punishment for the whistleblowers and a sentence for the investigative reporter, who had been acquitted in a previous trial. ICIJ considers this trial an affront to journalism and freedom of expression.

Luxembourg joins the Open Government Partnership today. It seems fully appropriate that it makes protection of whistleblowers and freedom of expression an integral part of its commitment to open government.

Citizens all around the world are demanding change. The disconnection between communities and financial and political elites has never been greater. And that sense of insecurity and disenfranchisement is being exploited by demagogues and populists who are guilty of the same faults their followers denounce. In the US, the working class voted for change and so far is getting a cabinet made up of billionaires and questionable characters. The president elect himself reportedly has not paid federal taxes in years.

We live a time of great political upheaval and uncertainty, but it is also a time of opportunity. Opportunity to rethink the way we work, just like the Panama Papers reporters changed their lone wolf ways and created a new, more efficient, model of collaboration and trust. Opportunity to use technology, at a time of fake news and false prophets, to create new networks of knowledge and information across professions, across ideologies and across borders. Opportunity to be better listeners of the communities we serve, to be more relevant and more aware. To rebuild trust.

In his manifesto, the source who leaked the Panama Papers, and who calls himself John Doe, says that the magnitude of the Panama Papers revelations should shock us all awake. But when it takes a whistleblower to sound the alarm, it is cause of even greater concern. It signals, he says, that democracy’s checks and balances have all failed, that the breakdown is systemic, and that severe instability could be just around the corner. 

So now, says John Doe, is the time for real action.” 

Filed Under: OGP News