Panama Papers scandal and other journalistic investigations, where there is no topic without company information — says Vadim Makarenko
During the last five years of Transparent Data’s activity, several times our data from our Prześwietl.pl company information database has supported journalists in their daily work. The most spectacular, during the Panama Papers scandal in 2016, where we were deeply moved (and also surprised) by the thanks from Vadim Makarenko who worked on the material:
We already knew then that the data we collect and combine from various national registers is of great value to business, but it did not come to our mind that they could also play such a significant role in combating fraud on the international scene.
Due to the sentiment to this story, we devote to it the last article of our #TransparentFive series on the occasion of the 5th birthday celebration of the company.
Panama Papers — the interview with Vadim Makarenko
The “Wyborcza” team together with the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and more than a hundred other editorial offices from 76 countries operating within the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, worked on the Panama Papers investigation. How do you remember this period today?
Vadim Makarenko: It was one of the most important adventures in my professional life. Colleagues from New York contacted us and offered to cooperate in a great international project.
We devoted the task mainly to the evenings and nights, but it was worth it. Few people have the opportunity to look behind the scenes of human life, as we did then. And I do not just mean the lives of the rich, but also the ordinary people. Sometimes we got to know the stories of people who found themselves in the archives of Mossack Fonseca by accident, because, for example, they bought a property in Asia, and the seller was served by companies from tax paradises. We were deeply moved by the story of a gay couple who wanted to secure their property so that their relatives could inherit it on the same terms as in heterosexual families. All these stories had to be confirmed by journalists — we had to call people, verify information in other sources, etc.
What role did your team play in the whole investigation? What was the most difficult?
VM.: I can not answer most of these questions in detail. All work on Panama Papers began with the signing of a confidentiality statement. In addition, the journalistic teams that participated in the project developed specific procedures for telling about our work. One of them is that you do not talk about what you did nor write about. It must be clearly stated that the first violin was played by the editorial office of the “Suddeutsche Zeitung”, because it was them who received the leak and shared it with the rest of colleagues in the world. A lot of work has been done by our colleagues from “Le Monde” and “Guardian”. The consortium coordinated work and tools.
For teams in individual countries, the most difficult task was to search documents from the largest leak in the history of the media. We had a lot of unstructured data — audio recordings, photos, e-mails, documents in various formats. Anyone looking for a needle in a haystack knows that accidental shifting does not give anything, you have to have a method. We had to create a lot of keys to search this set.
We guess that to create a good, reliable material, it is not enough to just sit down and start writing. The collection of data and their insightful analysis lasted probably several times longer. How did the “Wyborcza” team work? How did collect data? How long did the work last?
VM.: We worked on the project for almost a year.
One of the main tasks was to search for spectacular stories, for example, to find people or companies in the database that should not use the services of companies like Mossack Fonseca for legal or moral reasons. That is why one of the keys was a list of people who hold or held public offices. There was also a list of companies owned by the state treasury, which, moreover, we created a lot earlier together with Prześwietl.pl for completely different purposes. There was also a list of the richest business people from “Forbes”, a list of SWIFT codes and BIC numbers of Polish banks and many more. Another of the keys was a list of names of companies listed in the Polish National Court Register (KRS), but not having Polish register numbers. These were the companies like Star NV or Stream Ltd. We have assumed that it would be good to check foreign shareholders of Polish companies in this respect at Panama Papers.
We asked Prześwietl.pl for help, but the security protocols in this project were very restrictive and did not allow us to consult work with people outside the editorial office. Even the editors who could support us were only those, who had signed the NDA. Despite everything, we did not want our colleagues from Prześwietl.pl to be lost without a trace, so we prepared a quick analysis on the extensions in the names of companies — Ltd, BV, GMBH, AB, etc. They can say a lot and that’s how very interesting material was created at BIQdata, which we published unrelated to Panama Papers.
It has been more than two years since the Panama Papers scandal, and yet no one has ever forgotten about it …
VM.: It was a great project and it will be hard to beat it. The scale of cooperation — unprecedented. Implemented procedures — super effective, as evidenced by the fact that from the launch of the project until the publication there was no leak of information outside. New experiences acquired by editorial offices — priceless.
The world influence of the Panama Papers investigation was enormous — people like the president of Ukraine and the prime minister of Iceland had to explain their behavior, and one of the Spanish ministers even resigned. We also learned about Putin’s trusted friends. Malta suffered a real shock, where our friend was murdered there.
Another thing is that this project in Poland has caused much smaller consequences because for Polish business and politics Panama is not the most important direction for tax escape. For Poland, it is Cyprus.
There is probably no man who would not know what Interpol deals with, but not everyone has heard of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which for Panama Papers received, among others, The Pulitzer Prize. Even Wikipedia, which in addition to the link to the Panama Papers, shows zero results.
VM.: ICIJ is a non-governmental organization financed by rich private donors and donations from individuals. It employs people with many years of journalistic experience, but also experts in working with data and cybersecurity. It has partners around the world and together with them analyzes leaks in terms of global scale. It is involved in projects requiring complicated international cooperation because the impact is included in its mission.
And how looks the cooperation between journalists and the police?
VM.: There is no such cooperation. We do not provide any information to law enforcement agencies due to the protection of sources. According to the procedures, we always have to carefully protect them.
About Vadim Makarenko:
The initiator and editor-in-chief of the most ambitious and innovative journalistic service in Poland, BIQdata.pl. The winner of the prestigious Grand Press Digital 2015 award and author of the famous books “Secret services of capitalism” and “Profession: winner”. In Gazeta Wyborcza since 1998.