Massive pervasive corruption: The Panama Papers

The Panama Papers (2018)

A well-intentioned — even if conventional — documentary that will be more informative for those who know nothing or close to nothing about the subject


Writ­ten and di­rect­ed by Alex Win­ter.

In 2015, a mys­te­ri­ous whistle­blow­er by the pseu­do­nym ‘John Doe’ leaked over 11.5 mil­lion doc­u­ments from the records of Pana­man­ian law firm Mos­sack Fon­se­ca to the Ger­man news­pa­per Süd­deutsche Zeitung, in­clud­ing emails, con­tracts, pass­port scans and cor­po­ra­tion doc­u­ments that im­pli­cat­ed a huge num­ber of wealthy in­di­vid­u­als from all over the world in fi­nan­cial fraud and tax eva­sion. It was the largest leak of con­fi­den­tial doc­u­ments in his­to­ry, with such a mas­sive amount of data that the news­pa­per asked the help of the In­ter­na­tion­al Con­sor­tium of In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ists (ICIJ) — an in­de­pen­dent net­work of 376 jour­nal­ists in over 80 coun­tries who came to un­cov­er a glob­al cor­rup­tion con­spir­a­cy that would pose a se­ri­ous threat to their safe­ty.

Punc­tu­at­ed by a sober voiceover of John Doe’s man­i­festo in which he ex­plains his mo­ti­va­tions (voice of Eli­jah Wood), The Pana­ma Pa­pers is a point-blank — if cut-and-dried — ac­count of the col­lab­o­ra­tive and dan­ger­ous ef­fort un­der­tak­en by those jour­nal­ists, who shared their find­ings on an open source plat­form used to search and ac­cess doc­u­ments re­mote­ly called Black­light. Un­der the co­de­name Project Prometheus, this tem­po­rary and in­te­grat­ed col­lab­o­ra­tion dis­closed how the law firm set up off­shore shell com­pa­nies to help politi­cians, celebri­ties and oth­er pow­er­ful peo­ple evade tril­lions of dol­lars in un­de­clared tax­es, in an elab­o­rate scheme com­pa­ra­ble to the mon­ey laun­der­ing scene from Scar­face (1983) — which is used here as an il­lus­tra­tion of the il­lic­it mech­a­nism.

The doc­u­men­tary (and John Doe) makes the point that this eva­sion of tax­es con­cen­trates mon­ey in the hands of a priv­i­leged few and con­tributes to glob­al eco­nom­ic in­equal­i­ty, pover­ty and even drug traf­fick­ing. We see jour­nal­ists who took part in the project re­count the in­volve­ment of ma­jor banks such as HSBC, while among the well-con­nect­ed fig­ures named in the pa­pers are Ar­gen­tin­ian soc­cer play­er Li­onel Mes­si, for­mer Prime Min­is­ter of the Unit­ed King­dom David Cameron and for­mer Prime Min­is­ter of Ice­land Sig­mundur Davíð Gunnlaugs­son — who even los­es his com­po­sure at a cer­tain mo­ment when con­front­ed by the Ice­landic press about his con­nec­tion with an off­shore com­pa­ny.

De­spite not delv­ing deep enough into the de­tails per­tain­ing to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and even com­ing off as su­per­fi­cial at times (the rea­sons at­trib­uted to the im­peach­ment of Pres­i­dent Dil­ma Rouss­eff in Brazil, for in­stance, are far too sim­plis­tic and also in­ac­cu­rate), The Pana­ma Pa­pers makes a rather com­pelling case about the dan­gers faced by those re­porters who strug­gled to main­tain their ethics even when be­ing phys­i­cal­ly threat­ened or ha­rassed as trai­tors to their coun­tries (like in the case of the Pana­man­ian news­pa­per La Pren­sa), or when met with law­suits.

The film also shows how the dis­course is twist­ed from the oth­er side, as the Rus­sians speak of ‘Putino­pho­bia’ to de­bunk the jour­nal­ists’ claims or when Mos­sack Fon­se­ca com­pares their role in the scan­dal to a ‘knife fac­to­ry’ — which could nev­er be blamed for any mis­use of knives. But far more crit­i­cal is that some peo­ple were even as­sas­si­nat­ed by those want­i­ng to si­lence them. It was the trag­ic case of Mal­tese jour­nal­ist and anti-cor­rup­tion ac­tivist Daphne Gal­izia, who was killed in a car bomb at­tack in 2017 for re­veal­ing in­for­ma­tion re­lat­ing to sev­er­al Mal­tese politi­cians.

All those in­ci­dents only high­light the im­por­tance of this sort of in­ves­tiga­tive en­ter­prise, which has the pow­er to ex­pose abus­es of pow­er and, yes, hold ac­count­able those re­spon­si­ble (the pa­pers have al­ready led to the ar­rest and res­ig­na­tion of sev­er­al politi­cians all over the world). The ICIJ net­work was award­ed the Pulitzer Prize in 2017, while Mos­sack Fon­se­ca shut down the next year due to the eco­nom­ic and rep­u­ta­tion­al dam­age caused by the pub­li­ca­tion of the pa­pers. This may be still a be­gin­ning but is al­ready a re­as­sur­ing re­minder that in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism is not dead.

April 15, 2019


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