International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
last appeared in the Global Tax 50 two years ago
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists
(ICIJ) has established itself as a major player in the world of
tax with leaks of confidential information leading to
substantial legislatives changes worldwide.
On April 3, the organisation released the 'Panama Papers', a
giant leak of more than 11.5 million financial and legal
records that exposed how high-profile politicians, criminals
and celebrities have used offshore shell companies in tax
havens to hide assets from the tax man.
Gerard Ryle, who leads the ICIJ's staff from its
headquarters in Washington, DC, spoke to International Tax
Review about the investigation and the fall-out of the
International Tax Review: 'LuxLeaks' and the
'Panama Papers' were markedly different in their content. Yet,
their portrayal in much of the mainstream media was very
similar. What are your thoughts on this?
Gerard Ryle: We're not just interested in tax havens, we do
other stories. ICIJ has really changed a lot in the last five
years from being a network of journalists to being a network of
media partners. Together with our media partners we have
established that there is real public interest in offshore
secrecy, so if someone comes along with more material, then we
will be very keen to do another story. It's just got to be
different to what we have done before.
Every project we are doing on offshore secrecy has to be
different to the previous one, and I do think that this one was
slightly different in that it is much more detailed than anyone
had ever seen before.
We focused on public figures because we want to be able to
establish public interest in what we are doing. We found 12
current or former world leaders.
What was amazing is that we had 40 years of records from
this law firm [Mossack Fonseca] with offices all over the world
– even though they are based in Panama they have
offices in New York, China, UK, etc. Literally, it was
day-to-day [work] for 40 years of the offshore world.
We even saw records in there where they were reacting to our
first story, in 2013, the offshore leaks story. What we saw is
they were adjusting their services based on the new regimes and
the new laws that were coming in as a result.
Quite clearly Mossack Fonseca were reacting to new rules
coming in, and they were just finding new ways around them.
They were complying with what they saw as the law, using the
minimum application of the law. I assume these laws were
designed in the first place to stop this kind of behaviour
happening, but the laws are not working.
The biggest moment for me was when we had spent almost a
year working on the story and then several weeks – and
we did give them several weeks – before publication we
approached Mossack Fonseca with a very, very, very long list of
questions where we asked about this exposed person, or that
well-known figure, or this world regime which they had set up
companies for. They came back with this extraordinary answer
where they said: "We don't know what you're talking about.
These people are not our clients."
At first I thought they were just lying, but then I realised
that they were not. They did not do due diligence on many of
these things. I'm not going to name any banks, but if Bank A
came to Mossack Fonseca and asked for a company that just
happened to be linked to a rogue regime or a criminal then they
did not ask any questions.
We were told that the offshore world had cleaned up, we were
told that systems were in place, that due diligence was done
– and quite clearly it was not.
ITR: So do you think the lack of due diligence is
GR: It had to be by design. I remember that as a journalist
in part of the early research. I don't know why, but you know
that as a journalist when you type a random thing into the
search system, and I typed in "Pyongyang" thinking that there
would be no way I would get anything. Lo and behold, up pops a
company with a couple of entities registered out of Hong Kong
by Mossack Fonseca. Some of the clients had addresses in
Pyongyang! It was actually a front company for the North Korean
regime. If we, as journalists, can find it within a few
minutes, then surely someone should have done at Mossack
Fonseca. That is what I mean by a lack of due diligence.
We found one client who was getting services while in jail
in the US in New Jersey. He had been charged and convicted of
paedophilia, been charged and convicted with taking orphans out
of orphanages and turning them into prostitutes while they were
underage. How could you not know this? It was staggering, in
hindsight at least.
The thing about the offshore world, as I have always said,
is that it is just total secrecy. When you have secrecy you
have the potential for wrongdoing, so you just don't know what
you are going to find when you get a data set like this,
whether it's going to be criminal wrongdoing or not. It is
legal to set up a company in an offshore jurisdiction, but that
doesn't necessarily mean it is not of public interest, or that
it is right.
ITR: An interesting comment in an article in our
recent Latin America guide said that the
Panama Papers could have been dubbed the 'British Virgin
Islands Papers' due to the fact that a huge amount of the
structuring was going through the BVI. Is there an onus on the
UK government to be more responsible for their overseas
GR: Absolutely. You got a lot of rhetoric from former UK
Prime Minister David Cameron when he was in power about how he
was going to clean up the system and then we found his dad in
the Panama Papers investigation, which by itself wasn't
necessarily news, but the way he reacted to it made it big news
in Britain. A book came in mid-October from Cameron's former
spin doctor [Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of
Brexit, by Craig Oliver] in which he expressed how close
Cameron came to falling over this whole thing.
However, I do think that the British overseas territories
are the main havens for this kind of behaviour in the story. We
called it the Panama Papers because Mossack Fonseca are based
in Panama, but they had offices all over the world –
including in Britain.
ITR: David Cameron didn't fall over the Panama
Papers, but there were a couple of casualties. The Icelandic
Prime Minister went down over this. How do you feel when things
like that happen as a result of your work?
GR: We think our job stops at revealing what we think is of
public interest. That is the job of journalists, to reveal.
It's up to society to react to those revelations. In Iceland
you saw them surrounding the parliament house until the Prime
Minister had to resign. You've also had resignations in Armenia
and Spain, and right now there is huge political controversy in
Pakistan and Malta.
We are doing our job, but I don't think we should go any
further than that – we should not get into advocacy.
We are doing that because we think it's a good story, we think
it's a good issue that needs to be revealed – we are
not pursuing it for any other reason.
ITR: I presume you have been following the trials
of Antoine Deltour and Raphael Halet. They appealed the
decision, as have Luxembourg, around their sentencing. How
important is this case for whistleblowers in
GR: I think it's an important case. First of all, I think it
is a disgrace that they have been prosecuted at all. One of our
journalists is among those who were prosecuted, Edouard Perrin.
The appeal also now applies to him.
We are now showing how valuable whistleblowing can be.
Although, I think it has to be handled in an ethical matter
with journalistic principles in hand, which we do. I do not
think it would be appropriate for us to just dump all of the
Panama Papers on the internet because not all of it is in the
public interest. But when you do have a case like LuxLeaks, I
mean come on! Of course it is in the public interest! The
European Parliament has had an inquiry for almost 12 months
into it, it is changing attitudes, it is changing laws. Why
would you prosecute someone for doing that public good? It