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How the Panama Papers Become News

Yoichiro Tateiwa

May 12, 2016

NHK reporters have been scouring the Panama Papers, a huge trove of leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Monssack Fonseca detailing offshore financial dealings, for links to Japan.

Data from the leak was posted online this week by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Because of heavy online traffic, the reporters first had trouble accessing the data. It took 30 minutes to get through to the database.

The published data covers over 210,000 accounts. The reporters wanted to find out how many of the companies are owned by people based in Japan, as well as their backgrounds.

Looking at the company list, they found many household names. The list reveals lost tax revenues for Japan, a country that suffers from chronic tax shortages.

Some argue, however as long as no laws are broken, the practice is a legitimate tax-saving option for international corporations seeking to increase their competitive edge.

Officials at Monssack Fonseca say they have followed the rules, as setting up an offshore company isn't illegal on its own. But governments around the world are now probing possible financial wrongdoing.

This unprecedented coverage started with the ICIJ or International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which is headquartered in Washington, DC, a few blocks from the White House.

The ICIJ is working with its members and journalists from around the world to investigate and report on hidden facts.

More than 370 journalists from nearly 80 countries are taking part in the project.

The data was first obtained by a German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung. ICIJ says the leak was 2.6 terabytes in size, consisting of about 11.5 million files. To put it into perspective, that's enough for about 2,600 years' worth of newspaper editions.

The data is exchanged and forwarded to journalists through encrypted email.

"Journalists from many, many countries could all work together on this same data," says Will Fitzgibbon, who works at the ICIJ.

A keyword is "collaboration." Information sharing is required among the journalists participating in the project.

"What we can do is, with our data team of very talented journalists, build an online, secure and safe system in which information could be uploaded -- which meant that journalists from every country in the world could search that information." Fitzgibbon says.

American journalist Charles Lewis is the founder of the ICIJ. He had this to say about the project.

"The story itself substantively I think is incredibly interesting and I think important to us, but historically notable just because of dimension of the data, how much data there was. But it’s also historic in the way journalist work, because that’s also unusual and never happen before," Lewis says.

"So we put it all together. The reason why everyone's talking about is that they've never seen anything like it, and it’s kind of exciting to watch."

Lewis says because more and more issues are international, it's necessary for journalists in today's world to work together, across borders.

He says that the concept of the ICIJ and its ongoing effort is sending shockwaves through the world's wealthy population and triggering social changes.