The Panama Papers: What are they all about and why do they matter?

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A LOT has happened in the last few days since the revealing of the Panama Papers. Investigative journalism doesn’t work any better when it exposes your own country’s PM intertwined within a global scandal. But what exactly are the Panama Papers, and why do they matter?- Charlie Callear finds out.

Edited by Natalie Whitmore

Do you know that feeling when someone pulls your chair away just as you are about to sit down? Before anything else you notice you are falling- further than usual- then your stomach drops at the realisation of what is happening, followed by a heavy, humiliating and painful thump onto the floor.

The Panama Papers, officially the largest information leak in history, pulled the thrones from underneath the backsides of 143 politicians including leaders and ex-leaders around the world, along with their families and friends. To put it in perspective, WikiLeaks released 1.7GB of information in 2010, whilst the Panama Papers have released 11.5million documents which is equivalent to 2,600GB. Basically, it made WikiLeaks look like child play.

Panama's city , a popular tax haven in the Caribbean

Panama’s city , a popular tax haven in the Caribbean

But what are the Panama Papers?

They are documents- quite a few at that- obtained from the world’s fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca in Panama, which exposed how the rich and powerful hide their wealth using tax havens and shell companies. Concerning who pulled away the chair, it is unknown, which is probably best for their own safety. But what is confirmed is that they did so with such swift efficiency that no one, least of all the alleged criminals AKA some of the world’s leaders mentioned, saw it coming. These documents were submitted to the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung over a year ago, who then reached out to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

Which key figures have been named and shamed? And how did they react?

Frankly, it has been quite the challenge to choose out only a few of the alleged former MPS, peers, presidents, prime ministers, government officials, ministers, donors and kings. In the early stages of the release of the documents, it seems everyone is in denial; they still believe the chair is beneath their backsides. The fall, however, seems inevitable.

  • Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson

The Icelandic Prime Minister hit the floor hard and was quick to do so. After vigilantly denying the claims, and considering his resignation as preposterous, he took only a couple of days to succumb and become the first political casualty. His refusal to resign sparked protests and a petition which received 23,000 signatures (keeping in mind Iceland’s population only reaches 330,000).  The papers revealed he set up a company named Wintris Inc in 2007 then failed to declare his interest in the company to parliament. Later he sold 50% of the company to his wife for a ridiculous amount of 70p. As soon as Gunnlaugsson left an interview after being confronted about all this, it was pretty clear he was a gonner.

  • Ian Cameron
David Cameron and father, Ian Cameron

David Cameron and father, Ian Cameron

Ring a bell? He is the late father of Prime Minister David Cameron who admitted he owned shares in his father’s offshore trust, a confession that has led to calls for his resignation. After three days of initially persisting that neither he nor his family benefited from the account, opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, called for proof, insisting that ministers publish their tax returns and called for an independent investigation into the papers. For a nice touch, Corbyn has pledged to publish his own tax return. Finally, he believed the government should impose direct rule over British Crown Dependent territories.

  • Gianni Infantino

It is just one shame after another for FIFA as its second alleged scandalous President, successor to Sepp Blatter who was suspected of criminal mismanagement, has been named in the Panama Papers. Infantino is named on a contract with Cross Trading, a company which allegedly bribed South American football officials for years to gain cheap television rights in regional football tournaments. This is despite previously claiming he had no dealings with any of them when he was director of legal services for Uefa.

  • Deng Jiagui

To add to the list, brother-in-law of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has been accused of owning two British Virgin island companies in 2009. What is interesting- yet not surprising- about this case is how they reacted in a typical Chinese fashion; all social media and web searches on the subject have been censored. Put nicely by the Wall Street Journal, ‘Beijing says there’s nothing to hide but hides it anyway’.


China’s leader Xi Jinping.

  • Argentine President Mauricio Macri

Shiny new Argentine President Mauricio Macri, who was elected last year on a promise to fight corruption, is not off to a good start. Unfortunately (for him), he was listed as a leader of a trading company in the Bahamas, something he did not disclose as Mayor of Buenos Aires. As a pretty standard reaction, he is denying the claims.

  • Sergey Roldugin

Owner of three offshore companies, professional cellist and best friend to Putin, he is one of the many people from Putin’s inner circle who is named on the documents. Whilst the Russian President was not named himself, media outlets are pointing the finger at him. The general assumptions conclude that Roldugin along with other people accused including businessman Alisher Usmanov, lead directly to Putin. Frankly, would it be a surprise if a world class thug was involved in the world class scandal?

Cellist, conductor — and alleged billionaire — Sergei Roldugin (left) with Vladimir Putin at Russia's St. Petersburg Music House in 2

Sergei Roldugin (left) with Vladimir Putin at Russia’s St. Petersburg Music House.

What is the significance of them?

The revealing  of the papers holds those who feel above the law as accountable as they should be. Transparency is the key word. Public figures are role models and if they stuff their cash abroad to avoid paying tax, what is stopping the common people- who need the money much more-  from doing exactly the same? If our world leaders are criminals, what hope do we have?

Not forgetting the large amounts of money subsequently missing from our tax system, that should be helping run the foundations (education, health care, emergency services) of all of our lives. Moreover for young adults, the revelation that the president of the UAE owns dozens of properties in central London, worth more than £1.2billion through offshore companies, has been met with great disdain from. It has been discovered that 2,800 Mossack Fonseca companies appear on the Land Registry of overseas property dating from 2014 giving them the power to drive up house prices, which young people struggle to afford in the first place.

What is being done about it?

Journalists around the world have poured their coffees into thermal mugs, sat down and got comfy to help investigate the 11.5million documents that could hold the political elites to account. For the past 12 months, 400 journalists from more than 100 media institutions in more than 80 countries have contributed to the analysis. This includes:

  • Guardian, UK
  • BBC, UK
  • Le Monde, France
  • La Nacion, Argentina
  • Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Germany
  • Sonntagszeitung, Switzerland
  • Falter, Austria

Whilst the Panama Papers have pulled the thrones from underneath the world’s elites, they still need to be analysed, confirmed and convicted or not. This means, for those alleged criminals, they have not yet fallen to the floor but they have experienced the initial fear that their sense of security has vanished and they have started their descent. If the evidence is verified then those accused will hit the floor in the most humiliating fashion, if justice is served.