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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Asian Journalists Creating Investigative Network

Takafumi Terui

Oct. 7, 2016

A conference to promote investigative journalism sparked by the "Panama Papers" has pushed journalists in Asia to create a network to further their work.

UN experts estimate that individuals hide "between 7 and 25 trillion dollars of wealth offshore." They say it could be costing countries hundreds of billions of dollars in tax income every year. That estimate came after a massive amount of leaked documents from a Panamanian law firm revealed hidden financial data earlier this year.

The Panama Papers shed light on the involvement of numerous politicians and business people with shell companies in tax havens.

The disclosure of such information is the result of the collaborative work of investigative journalists around the world. But many Asian journalists have been watching the project from the sidelines, so many are hoping to build their own network.

More than 350 journalists across Asia gathered in Nepal last month, hoping for an opportunity to learn first-hand from those who worked on the Panama Papers project.

"An unprecedented collaboration that involves initially 400 journalists, now 500 journalists from 80 countries, now nearly 100 countries, that produced stories that made headlines around the world," said Sheila Coronel, dean of academic affairs at Columbia Journalism School.

The speakers emphasized the impact the leaked documents gave to society.

"Among those names were 2 sitting cabinet ministers. One is chief of the state auditor agency and a couple of criminals that have been recorded in the past," said Wahyu Dhyatmika, editor of Tempo, an Indonesian magazine.

We interviewed one of the presenters, Ritu Sarin, of the newspaper The Indian Express newspaper. She says it took her team 8 months to conduct research and their findings revealed involvement of leading business figures and a top actress with shell companies.

"For journalists, it has changed mindset that they cannot work in a big group on a secret project because the Panama Papers have proven that they can do it," Sarin said.

The Panama Papers contains more than 11.5 million files of companies set up in tax havens. Journalists have revealed hidden assets of powerful men and women. But access to the Panama Papers is limited to those who have been authorized by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which is supporting journalists working on the project.

Participants discussed establishing their own network for Asian journalists. They are especially eager to gain access to the Panama Papers, and agreed to set up a new network to share information once they have found potential stories.

This will be the first collaboration of its kind among Asian journalists to investigate hidden facts possibly related to powerful figures in the region. They say it gives meaning to their role as watchdogs.

"In Asian countries, we face some common problems. If we work together we will be strong, our voice will be strong and we will be more benefited," said Shakhawat Liton, a senior reporter at The Daily Star.

The organizer of the event emphasizes that journalists in North America or Europe have a long tradition of networking that enables such big projects to take place, and now is the time for journalists in Asia to follow suit.

"The Panama Papers didn't just happen. The Panama Papers occurred because of 20 years of building network of investigative reporters," said David Kaplan, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

There are more private documents being added to the pile, and the conference was a chance to make new connections to continue the work.

NHK World's chief correspondent Yoichiro Tateiwa joined anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Yoichiro, you were at the conference, what was that atmosphere like?

Tateiwa: They were so enthusiastic and eager to learn from others. But this conference is not a gathering of big media organizations. Rather, it's a gathering of individual journalists. The aim of the event is to enhance the use of investigative journalism in the region.

Beppu: So you are attempting to facilitate the network of investigative journalism in the region by using the Panama Papers. How significant is this network to the region?

Tateiwa: I think it has great significance. Individual journalists do not have a lot of power, as you know, but collaboration across borders can give them a louder voice. Building the network has been discussed for years but just building a network is not enough. There must be a goal to connect us. It must be something concrete, and we have this Panama Papers project -- it's a huge amount of data so why don't we use it for this purpose?

Beppu: But we know that there is great diversity in this region in terms of freedom of the press.

Tateiwa: That's part of the reason this kind of investigative journalism has not been practiced in the region. But I heard some journalists who had experience reporting on the Panama Papers say they had pressure from powerful figures when it came to reporting on the story. But they told them 7you can stop us but you can't stop the others.' That's collaboration. So this network will support not just this type of journalism, but also those reporting.

Shibuya: So how does one get involved in this network?

Tateiwa: Those who want to participate will inform a member who is already involved in the project on what they would like to investigate. We will inform every member of the project including the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ, working as the headquarters of the project. We have to have authorization from them. Then we verify the story and if we agree that the story is newsworthy, we run the story.

I think the whole scheme would allow Asian journalists to take a step forward, and I hope the network will give all journalists in the region power to be watchdogs of society.