The Panama Papers: But how was it “leaked”?


The world has been reeling over the past few days from the revelations from the Panama Papers, with many names of top leaders and celebrities being implicated. Some of them are already involved, either directly or through proxies, in ongoing corruption probes, including those in the ASEAN region.

The debate has also focused on eradicating tax havens, and rightly so, as the big picture.

But little attention so far has been relished on how the 11.5 million documents from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca were leaked, and who was behind it. And what motives might the persons behind the leak have?

The uncovering

It has been revealed that this leak began about a year ago, when an anonymous person contacted Süddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper. “John Doe”, as the source is known as, offered Bastian Obermayer, and his team investigative journalists, the leaked documents – on a few conditions guaranteeing his or her safety, and the methods of encryption to secure the transfer of the documents. No meetings were to ever take place too.

The motive? “I want to make these crimes public,” the source said, as related to the public by Mr Obermayer this week. No compensation was ever requested by “John Doe”.

Over the course of the ensuing year, a multinational team of 400 journalists from 100 media outlets across 80 countries, including the BBC, the Guardian and Le Monde, worked to sieve through the treasure trove of information. They were coordinated by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which Süddeutsche Zeitung contacted for help with the project, which took place in absolute secrecy.

At 2.6 terabytes of data and consisting of 11.5 million documents, it is a major exposé of leaked documents that far surpasses the scale of what WikiLeaks did in 2010, or what Edward Snowden revealed in 2013, many times over.

And then the bombshell was dropped this past Sunday (3 April), when the report was concurrently released by the news organisations involved in the investigations.

Ramon Fonseca: “we have a theory”

How did these documents leak from the offices of Mossack Fonseca? Ramon Fonseca, founding partner of the law firm, is rather sure they are in fact not a leak from an insider, in the way how Edward Snowden leaked classified documents while a subcontractor of the National Security Agency of the US, and then sought asylum in Russia.

Mr Fonseca is very certain, as during interviews this week in the wake of the exposé, that the information was hacked. “We rule out an inside job,” he said. “This is not a leak. This is a hack”.

“The only crime that has been proven is the hack. No one is talking about that. That is the story.”

Mr Fonseca also seems to be on to a theory as to the hack, which he says his firm is “following it”.

He insists, vehemently, that none of the leaked cases were illegal and hence will ever result in a single charge in any court. He has filed a complaint with prosecutors for the crime of the hack. The Financial Times has said it simply shows that Panama’s regulators and authorities have been part of a corrupted system influenced by flows from the dirty-money machine.

So rather than an Edward Snowden situation, quite a lot more sophisticated work seems to have been needed in the hack on documents at Mossack Fonseca.

And who, or which group of people, might have funded this massive hack project?

Who was behind the leak?

Perhaps a rival of some of the top world leaders and celebrities, who wishes them ill, or wishes to plot their downfall. But the sheer range of personalities involved, from a brother-in-law of the Chinese President to the father of the British Prime Minister, to the Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan and the Argentine footballer Lionel Messi, seems to suggest a target at the whole class of politicians and celebrities internationally.

This sets the leak of the Panama papers apart from the kind of Cold War-flavoured, US-Russia rivalry seen in the Edward Snowden leaks.

Or perhaps it was one of the governments – perhaps even public servants acting separately from their sometimes corrupted political leaders – cracking down on tax havens, as part of an international programme of repatriating lost tax revenues. Such a programme had gained traction in recent years, given that the global financial crisis of 2008 had forced governments to close up any loopholes to shore up state revenues.

Perhaps it might even be a rival of Mossack Fonseca – another law firm also in the business of helping clients set up offshore companies to aid tax evasion. Tellingly, Mr Fonseca has said that he fears his rivals could muscle into his business following the leak.

Other jurisdictions frequently described as tax havens, in the Caribbean alone, include Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.