- Frederik Obermaier
an investigative reporter at Germany’s leading newspaper, the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, that helped publish the Panama Papers. He is co-author of the book Panama Papers: The Story of a Worldwide Revelation.
- Michael Hudson
senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which published the Panama Papers.
“The biggest leak in the history of data journalism just went live, and it’s about corruption.” That is what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted about the Panama Papers, which were released Sunday and reveal how the rich and powerful in numerous countries use tax havens to hide their wealth. Some 11.5 million files were leaked from one of the world’s most secretive offshore companies, Mossack Fonseca, a law firm based in Panama, and passed to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and then pored over by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The revelations implicate 12 heads of state and a number of other politicians, their family members and close associates, including friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, relatives of the prime ministers of Britain, Iceland and Pakistan, and the president of Ukraine. On Monday, one of the largest protests in Iceland’s history demanded Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson step down after the leaked files revealed he and his wife were hiding investments worth millions of dollars behind a secretive offshore company. We are joined from Munich by Frederik Obermaier, co-author of the Panama Papers story. He is an investigative reporter at Germany’s leading newspaper, the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, and co-author of the book “Panama Papers: The Story of a Worldwide Revelation,” just released today in Germany. We also speak with Michael Hudson, senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which published the Panama Papers.
AMY GOODMAN: “The biggest leak in the history of data journalism just went live, and it’s about corruption.” That’s what NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted about the Panama Papers. Released Sunday, they reveal how the rich and powerful in numerous countries use tax havens to hide their wealth. Some 11-and-a-half million files were leaked from one of the world’s most secretive offshore companies, Mossack Fonseca, a law firm based in Panama. The documents were obtained from an anonymous source by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
The information in the files dates back to 1977 and goes up to December of last year. The revelations implicate 12 heads of state and a number of other politicians, their family members and close associates, including friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, relatives of the prime ministers of Britain, Iceland and Pakistan, and the president of Ukraine. Relatives of at least eight current or former members of China’s top ruling body are also named, and today Chinese news groups were ordered to purge all mention of the Panama Papers. This is one of the lead authors of the Panama Papers, Bastian Obermayer of Süddeutsche Zeitung, talking about the leaks.
BASTIAN OBERMAYER: [translated] A small Panamanian law firm that almost no one has heard of is at the center of the research: Mossack Fonseca. Mossack Fonseca guarded the data of the world’s most powerful and dangerous people—until our source passed it on to us. That was about a year ago. I’ve never seen the source in person. We’ve been talking to each other via an encrypted chat. I’ve very openly asked him why he’s doing this. He says he thinks they have to stop what they’re doing, and he thinks they’re doing rotten business. He wants to stop it.
AMY GOODMAN: In a written statement immediately following the revelations, Mossack Fonseca said allegations it provided a structure designed to hide the source of money were, quote, “completely unsupported and false” and that, quote, “We do not provide beneficiary services to deceive banks. It is difficult, not to say impossible, not to provide banks with the identity of final beneficiaries and the origin of funds,” they said.
So far, fallout from the leaks has prompted investigations and calls for resignation. On Monday, one of the largest protests in Iceland’s history demanded that the prime minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, step down, after the leaked files revealed he and his wife were hiding investments worth millions of dollars behind a secretive offshore company. More than 10,000 demonstrators gathered outside the Parliament building in Reykjavík.
PROTESTER: I’m just protesting like the rest of the nation, it appears.
REPORTER: What are you protesting?
PROTESTER: I would like the prime minister to resign.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the leaks, we’re joined now by two guests. In Münich, Germany, Frederik Obermaier is co-author of Panama Papers. He is an investigative reporter at Germany’s leading newspaper, the Münich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung. He is co-author of the book Panama Papers: The Story of a Worldwide Revelation, that was just released today in Germany. Here in New York, Michael Hudson joins us, senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which published the Panama Papers.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let us begin with Frederik Obermaier in Münich, Germany. Talk about how your paper got the biggest leak in journalism history.
FREDERIK OBERMAIER: Good morning. About one year ago, an anonymous source turned to Süddeutsche Zeitung asking us, “Hey, hello, I am John Doe. Interested in data?” And we said, of course, said, “Yes, we are interested in data.” And it turned out that it’s data, internal data, from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. And we started investigating this data, and it grew and it grew, and we realized that this data is by far too much for us. We started to investigate it as a team of two. And as we are members of ICIJ, we realized we have to share this material with our partners, because this story is a worldwide story.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what started to be revealed—I mean, 11-and-a-half million documents is astounding—and why this is called, this leak, the Panama Papers.
FREDERIK OBERMAIER: This leak is called the Panama Papers because the documents are from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. It’s a law firm that is headquartered in Panama but has branches all around the world. And they are offering offshore companies to their customers, to banks, to lawyers and end customers. And what we see now—I mean, the offshore company was like a wall. We couldn’t see inside before. Now we have insight through this data. We see which people are the ultimate beneficial owners of offshore companies, which people are using them to hide crime, which using them to obviously evade taxes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s go to some specific examples. We just said in our lede that there are increasing calls for the prime minister of Iceland to resign. Ten thousand people gathered in downtown Reykjavík yesterday. Why is he being targeted? What did you learn through this document release?
FREDERIK OBERMAIER: We learned that the Icelandic prime minister was the co-owner of an offshore company called Wintris, and he owned this with his later wife—yeah, his later wife. But he didn’t declare it to public. And this offshore company, Wintris, was in the possession of bonds of the major three Icelandic banks. That was the bank that corrupted during the financial crisis. And, I mean, this would have been something which he should have declared to the public, that, “Hey, I’m—as a politician, I have to deal with what has happened during the financial crisis, but I do have bonds and had bonds in these banks via my offshore company.” But he didn’t declare it to public. So, we saw yesterday what the Icelandic population thinks about it, or a majority or parts of it, because there have been thousands gathering in Reykjavík asking him to resign.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Hudson, you’re with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Before we go into how you got involved with this German newspaper and the extent of this massive document leak, talk further about Iceland and about this prime minister and what—how that is an example of what you’ve discovered.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Right. You know, when he—when the prime minister, when he entered Parliament in 2009 as a member of Parliament, he owned this company. He didn’t declare it. By the end of the year in 2009, he had sold it to his wife for a dollar. You know, this is at a time when he was really taking up the cause of, in his words, you know, to protect Icelanders from foreign vultures who were trying to pick through the remains of the crashed banks and profit. And what people didn’t know was that he—was as Frederik said: He and his wife, or certainly his wife, owned millions of dollars’ worth of bonds in these banks. So, it’s unclear whether or not the political positions he took benefited or hurt, you know, his family’s holdings, but the key was that he never reported, there was no disclosure.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how your organization, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, worked with this German newspaper.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Right. You know, the great thing about ICIJ is we’ve been able to gather—
AMY GOODMAN: What is it?
MICHAEL HUDSON: ICIJ is a U.S.-based nonprofit news organization. We have a small number of full-time staffers, about 11 or 12 folks, here in the U.S., Costa Rica, Spain, Venezuela. But we also have 190 members around the world who work at places like The Guardian, the BBC and other newspapers and broadcast organizations around the world. And, you know, we have an extraordinary group of people who work with us who really embrace something that a lot of journalists don’t embrace—a couple things: teamwork and patience, this idea that you’re going to share information with people that normally you would consider your competitors, but the key is, is we all agree to do so, and we all agree to publish at the same time, which is really a win-win. We’re able to sort of, in a sense, do sort of journalistic crowdsourcing on these giant data sets, like the Panama Papers, and when there’s a—and when everyone publishes, you’re not posting by yourself. You have some protection if you’re in a country where media can be silenced, but also it just—it creates a sort of international firestorm, as we’ve seen.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, this is massive. Was The New York Times involved? They’ve given this very little coverage.
MICHAEL HUDSON: They’ve written about it, but—
AMY GOODMAN: Some. There’s a piece on the Iceland minister today.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Right, right. But we see lots of other media, including The Washington Post and other folks, are sort of jumping on this and have been sort of forced to deal with this.
AMY GOODMAN: What, to you, is the biggest story that you’ve—that have been revealed in these 11-and-a-half million files?
MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, I think the biggest story is the world leaders. And it’s—you know, we have a dozen world leaders who, the documents show, actually controlled, personally controlled, offshore assets or were involved in offshore transactions. But the other part of it is, is we have dozens of people who were either family members or associates of world leaders—
AMY GOODMAN: Name names.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Well, one name would be people very close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, longtime friends, friends going back to his boyhood, business associates, even the godfather of Putin’s eldest daughter. And they essentially have formed a network where they’re trading among themselves. They have various degrees of control over offshore companies and over large—secretly have influence over large Russian corporations. And we’ve seen as—the records themselves show as much as $2 billion being shuffled back and forth.
AMY GOODMAN: The cellist Sergei Roldugin.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Exactly. This is a man who says he has, you know, no finance background, he’s not—he has no fortune, but yet the records tell a different story. They show that he has connections to, and in some cases control of, assets worth millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars.
AMY GOODMAN: The center of a scheme in which money from the Russian state banks is hidden offshore, some of it ending up in a ski resort where in 2013 Putin’s daughter, Katerina, got married.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Bashar al-Assad, the leader in Syria?
MICHAEL HUDSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: His two cousins, Rami and Hafez—
MICHAEL HUDSON: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: —Makhlouf, who have been the target of international sanctions, suspected of controlling key gateways to Syria’s oil and telecom business?
MICHAEL HUDSON: Yes, they’re people connected to him. Also what we’ve seen is that companies that have been busting the international embargo against Syria and supplying fuel that was used to keep Syria’s Air Force helicopters and airplanes in the air. These are craft that were used to bomb his own citizens. And Mossack Fonseca was representing, working with the companies that were busting these sanctions.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain exactly what this company is in Panama, Mossack Fonseca.
MICHAEL HUDSON: It’s a law firm, but it really is—you know, its main business is really as an incorporator of offshore companies. It’s headquartered in Panama City, but it has offices in Miami, Zürich, Hong Kong, more than 35 places around the world. I think they have eight offices total in China. This is an international organization that specializes in selling secrecy. And secrecy is something that’s bought and sold. And the more secrecy, the deeper secrecy, the more levels of protection, of insulation, you want, the more you’ll pay.
AMY GOODMAN: Argentine President—Frederick Obermaier, Argentine President Mauricio Macri, the man that President Obama just went to visit in Argentina, while mayor of Buenos Aires—is revealed in these files—Macri did not disclose his position as director of a company which was incorporated in the Bahamas in 1998.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Right.
FREDERIK OBERMAIER: Yes, that was a very interesting case for us, because he was another world leader, a current world—leader of a big country worldwide. And, for us—I mean, we found him really at a late stage of this investigation. But, for us, it was very interesting, because that was the time when he became the new president of Argentina. So, for us, it was very important to have a deeper look into this case.
AMY GOODMAN: Also listed in this grouping of individuals involved is the British prime minister, David Cameron. Frederik Obermaier, talk more about what you found.
FREDERIK OBERMAIER: I mean, David Cameron is not in the data himself, but there is actually his father in this data. And he’s involved in a structure that involved bearer shares. And that’s—for me, that was very interesting, because it’s actually David Cameron now who is asking for and who pushes for getting rid of structures that involve bearer shares. And it was actually his father using such structures. So, as of today, there was a huge debate in London, and we heard from our correspondent in London that that’s actually the topic number one in Great Britain.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, this issue of the British government facing criticism of Cameron after his late father’s name appeared in the Panama Papers leak, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said today he’ll publish his tax returns and urged other ministers to do the same. This is what he said.
JEREMY CORBYN: It’s high time that we got tough on tax havens. Britain has a huge responsibility, because many of those tax havens are in British overseas territories or crown dependencies. The leaked documents show tax havens have become honeypots of international corruption, tax avoidance and tax evasion. They are sucking revenues out of our own country and many others, fueling inequality, shortchanging our services and our people. The government needs to go beyond warm words on tax dodging. There cannot be one set of tax rules for the wealthy elite and another for the rest of us. The unfairness and abuse must stop. So I say this to the government and to the chancellor: No more lip service. The richest must pay their way.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader in Britain, as David Cameron is coming under criticism, the prime minister. Frederik Obermaier, what about in Germany itself?
FREDERIK OBERMAIER: In Germany, we have had our finance minister calling for more transparency in the world, in the world of offshore. But that’s actually quite funny because it was our finance minister doing the same and asking for the same in the year 2013, after we and ICIJ and all the partners uncovered the offshore leaks. So, this is another example, for me, of politicians, high-profile politicians, asking for transparency but then not pushing enough to get these measures into practice.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Michael Hudson, more on world leaders?
MICHAEL HUDSON: Right. You know, we’ve seen quite a few world leaders who have spoke out against corruption, including Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, China’s top leader. Those folks have been connected to offshore entities. Poroshenko was shown during the armed conflict with Russia—his representatives were setting up an offshore company for him at that time. You know—
AMY GOODMAN: Information now being blocked in China around what’s been discovered.
MICHAEL HUDSON: Absolutely. And that’s sort of a pattern. In previous investigations, when we’ve written about the offshore holdings of China’s elite, China has shut us down. But it’s interesting. There are sort of freedom of information activists. What they’ll do is they will take our—what they’ve done in the past is they’ve taken our stories and turned them into impossible-to-search PDFs, so they can be emailed around the country and beat the blockade.
AMY GOODMAN: Frederik Obermaier, among the people identified is Alaa Mubarak, the son of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime dictator forced out a few years ago in the Arab Spring in Egypt.
FREDERIK OBERMAIER: Yes. And that—for me, that’s a very interesting case, because this case shows how the Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, deals with sanctioned individuals, because we see in the data that they actually realized that it was Alaa Mubarak, so the son of Hosni Mubarak, who’s in the data and that he was sanctioned, but they still kept him—his company active for a time.
And that’s something we see in different cases in the data. I mean, Mossack Fonseca always claims, and they told us—for example, one year ago, when we asked them for another story if they are dealing with sanctioned individuals or companies, and they told us, “No, we would not accept them as customers.” But what we do see now in the data is that they do actually accept them. For example, we found a conversation between several partners of this law firm, and they spoke about Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of Bashar al-Assad. And, I mean, they realized that he was the cousin, and they realized that he was sanctioned, and they realized that he’s allegedly one of the financiers of the Syrian regime. And they said, “Oh, there is this bank who still does business with him, so we should still keep with him, as well.” And I think that really shows how scrupulous they are, because, I mean, they are—they dealt with a person that was sanctioned and that was involved with a regime that is killing thousands in Syria.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion with Frederik Obermaier, co-author of the Panama Papers story, investigative reporter at Germany’s leading newspaper, the Münich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung. He is co-author of the book Panama Papers: The Story of a Worldwide Revelation, just released today in Germany. And with us in New York, Michael Hudson, senior editor at the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ, which published the Panama Papers. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with them in a minute.