Panama papers: towards a collaborative future

We need to have joint investigations in South Asia to fend off the perils of competitive chauvinism and narrow definitions of nationalism

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

Published - April 11, 2016 12:13 am IST

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan

CHENNAI, 16/10/2014: A.S. Panneerselvan, The Hindu Readers' Editor. Photo: V.V.Krishnan

Digital disruption has created an ironic situation for the news media industry. On the one hand, media organisations have been able to reach out to readers in hitherto distant geographies through the acceleration of technology, which has helped in providing depth to data journalism and in mainstreaming journalistic tools such as user-generated content. On the other, they are seeing a steady decline of revenue. The financial crunch in developed economies has reached an inflection point. The booming media markets in developing economies such as China and India may soon have to confront this uncomfortable reality.

I am excited by the stories generated by the >Panama Papers investigation . A story in this tranche that provided amazing insights into the mind of the uber rich was “The art of secrecy”. It looked at the connection between international art trade and offshore secrecy, and explained how billionaire art dealers shield paintings which were allegedly looted by the Nazis. This nearly solves many mysteries involving Van Goghs, Picassos, Rembrandts and other masters. The report also records the fact that sales of art exceeded $63.8 billion in 2015 and billionaire wealth allocated to art in 2013 was estimated at around $32 billion.

The Panama Papers reaffirm an inevitable way to reboot the news media, a process that began with the collaboration between Wikileaks and some of the major media organisations of the world. The Panama Papers investigation, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists together with 370 journalists from over 100 media outlets, revealed the offshore links of some of the globe’s most prominent figures. This team spent a year sifting through 11.5 million leaked files of a little-known law firm based in Panama, Mossack Fonseca, one of the world’s biggest creators of shell companies meant for the powerful to hide ownership of assets. The investigation revealed information on more than 2,14,000 offshore companies connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories.

According to Tom Law of the Ethical Journalism Network , the importance of the Panama Papers lies in the meticulous, painstaking and ethical reporting that extracted the most relevant facts to tell compelling stories from the cache of information, which exceeded 2.6 terabytes of data.

This newspaper’s partnership with WikiLeaks for three sets of documents — India Cables, Pakistan Cables, and Kissinger Cables — offered its readers, wrote N. Ram, then Editor-in-Chief, in an introductory note providing both the background and the context to the collaboration, “a series of unprecedented insights into India’s foreign policy and domestic affairs, diplomatic, political, economic, social, cultural, and intellectual — encountered, observed, tracked, interpreted, commented upon, appreciated, and pilloried by U.S. diplomats cabling the State Department in Washington D.C.” He observed how the exercise gave high-octane energy to the team of journalists working on the Cables: “The team worked long hours in a secured office space, practically without a day’s break, sifting through the data, categorising, segmenting, and speed-reading the cables, searching with keywords, redacting if necessary, making a large first selection of what seemed most relevant and interesting, and re-reading the cables to write dozens of stories, formatting and uploading the cables online for global reach. Quiet, controlled excitement reigned for the most part within the confined environment, even when fatigue set in and nerves were frayed.”

Expanding cooperation The idea of cooperation and collaboration in journalism should not be restricted to high-profile cases such as WikiLeaks and the Panama Papers. We need to have joint investigations in South Asia to fend off the perils of competitive chauvinism and narrow definitions of nationalism. In the noise generated by 24X7 television channels, we hardly remember that it was the Pakistan media that proved the nationality of Ajmal Kasab, the only attacker of the Mumbai carnage to be captured alive. It was they who found out that Kasab was the son of Amir Kasab and Noor Illahi from Faridkot village, Okara District of Punjab Province, Pakistan.

The killing of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and >M.M. Kalburgi in India, the assassination of Governor Salman Taseer and Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan, and the cold-blooded murder of secular bloggers Nazimuddin Samad, Niloy Chakrabarti, Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman and Ananta Bijoy Das in Bangladesh are grim reminders of majoritarian ruthlessness in our region. A joint journalistic investigation into the role of religious bigots in these killings and the inaction of respective governments to act against the criminals in a determined manner would generate a positive ripple effect.

We need joint reportage on key developmental issues to confront the half-truths emanating from the corridors of power. Let’s look at the contentious Kishanganga Hydroelectric Project located on the Kishenganga/Neelum river, which is governed by the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan. The differences could not be resolved by bilateral talks and the issue was taken to the Court of Arbitration at The Hague. When the court issued its final award on December 21, 2013, it was evident that both countries had peddled half-truths to please domestic constituencies, and that the Indus Waters treaty, which survived three wars and two nuclear tests, is a fair mechanism for sharing of resources.

We have an illiberal visa regime in our region. Our news-gathering process has become expensive. A systematic collaborative effort in which major media organisations in South Asia pool their resources may ensure sustainability for transformative journalism.

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