BERLIN — The story behind the Panama Papers leaks started with an email in early 2015: “Hello, this is John Doe. Interested in data?”
“We are very interested,” replied a journalist in Munich.
The exchange resulted in internal documents from Mossack Fonseca — a Panama law firm that creates anonymous offshore companies around the world — being sent to staff at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a large German daily. The newspaper had been involved in tax-haven investigations before.
The newspaper received about 2.6 terabytes (2,600 gigabytes) worth of information detailing how leaders, celebrities and athletes from around the globe acquired shell companies that can enable owners to cover up their dealings, and hide money.
The newspaper, which described in an article how it acquired the trove of documents, said the source of the material wanted no financial compensation. The source asked only for encryption and other security measures: “There are a couple of conditions. My life is in danger. We will only chat over encrypted files. No meetings, ever. The choice of stories is up to you.”
Asked why the source was leaking the documents, the reply was: “I want to make these crimes public.”
“He said that they must be stopped,” the newspaper’s Bastian Obermayer, who was involved in the project, said in a video. “It’s rotten business they are doing.”
After receiving the data, the newspaper’s staff — realizing the 11. 5 million documents would be too much to take on for one newspaper, brought it to the Washington, D.C.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The ICIJ had helped coordinate on other projects on tax havens and tax evasion involving the newspaper known as Offshore Leaks, Lux Leaks and Swiss Leaks.
In one case two years ago, a whistle-blower sold internal Mossack Fonseca data to German authorities. That data was much older and smaller in scope, the newspaper said. It addressed a few hundred offshore companies and led investigators to search the homes and offices of about 100 people.
In the end, major German banks including Commerzbank and Hypovereinsbank paid millions of euros in fines. Since then, other countries have also acquired data from the initial smaller leak, among them the United States, the United Kingdom and Iceland.
Still, the Panama Papers is the largest project by far for the newspaper. It involved around 400 journalists from more than 100 media organizations in over 80 countries, some of whom worked on the earlier tax haven stories, according to the newspaper.
The documents are primarily comprised of emails, pdf files, photo files and excerpts of an internal Mossack Fonseca database. It covers a period spanning from the 1970s to December 2015, according to the ICIJ.
“The sheer number of people we found in the data is becoming clear to us — dictators, Japanese mafia, Sicilian mafia, Russia mafia, weapons dealers, drug dealers, pedophiles,” the newspaper’s Frederik Obermaier, who also worked on the project, said in the video.
“You start to feel a little nervous when you realize that this one leak is going to expose them all, and that it all started at the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.”