The Panama Papers and Collaborative Advocacy

By Meghan Morris*


By now you have likely heard of the Panama Papers. Leaked to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung by an anonymous source, the Papers include over 11.5 million records from the files of Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that helped politicians, drug dealers, athletes, businessmen, and other rich clients hide wealth and evade taxes through offshore shell companies, investment funds, and tax havens. The Mossack Fonseca clients implicated in this leak include over 140 politicians from more than 50 countries, from the presidents of Argentina and Ukraine to former ministers and politicians in countries from Brazil to France to Cambodia to Colombia. They also include the family and friends of current and former heads of state, such as Vladimir Putin (his friend – a cellist! – moved $2 billion through offshore accounts), David Cameron, Bashar al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, and Xi Jinping.

Since the release of the Panama Papers last week, reactions have ranged from shock – at, for example, the amount of wealth political leaders have managed to accumulate – to a sense that the leak simply revealed what everyone already knew about corruption, about tax havens, about politics. There have also been actions by citizens and activists in some of the many countries the Papers touched. In the biggest immediate political fallout of the Papers, protests in Iceland over the revelations about the offshore financial activities of Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson led to his taking a leave of absence just two days after the Papers’ release.

Continuing advocacy work coming out of the Panama Papers is tremendously important. The Papers provide insight into the financial dealings of people in halls of power in specific countries, such as Iceland, providing a foothold for advocates with a variety of agendas. But, in aggregate, they also trace the broader workings and structure of the offshore world. Advocacy work around this world is notoriously difficult. As with advocacy around other issues that cross political borders, legal jurisdictions, and economic regimes – such as foreign investment – good advocacy on offshore issues requires a complex mix of financial and legal expertise across multiple jurisdictions, political background in specific countries, and, importantly, lots of resources. To even begin to understand and build advocacy campaigns around the Panama Papers demands expertise around issues as diverse as Ukrainian corporate finance, international sanctions against the Syrian regime, relationships between the Argentine political elite, and property law in the British Virgin Islands. Not to mention fluency in Icelandic.

Advocates would do well to look for guidance for this to the model of journalism that gave us the Panama Papers. While the initial leak was to Süddeutsche Zeitung, the newspaper shared the records with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which focuses specifically on cross-border issues. The ICIJ brought together a team of over a hundred media partners from across the globe. This team spent a year with the Papers before their release, building stories that focused on the larger structural issues the Papers illustrate, as well as stories addressing particular political figures or problems that would be of interest to more country-specific audiences.

In an interview with the U.S.’s National Public Radio, ICIJ’s Gerard Ryle and reporting team member Luke Harding describe how this was made possible through an explicitly collaborative international model. They note how difficult it was for the ICIJ to get large U.S. media outlets such as The New York Times on board with this kind of collaborative journalism, surmising that these outlets felt they were big enough on their own to do the work. The ICIJ rejected this model, however, saying that “what we wanted [large U.S. outlets] to do, though, was join the investigation with us, and with our colleagues around the world, and go on the journey together.” ICIJ’s reporting on the Papers demonstrates the advantages of this collaborative model for the pooling of expertise and scarce resources, as well as for ensuring that the Panama Papers would have impact across the globe.

There are, of course, key differences between journalism and advocacy. Most importantly, advocates are often in a position of working to change regimes like those illustrated in the Panama Papers, not just bring them to light. Changing the regimes that structure the offshore world involves not just prosecuting or creating political costs for those who have been involved in illegal or corrupt activities. It also involves pushing for widespread legal reforms to stem tax avoidance, since, as sociologist Brooke Harrington points out, many of the strategies illustrated in the Panama Papers are perfectly legal.

Despite these differences, however, advocates have much to learn from this collaborative model of journalism. This is particularly true for work around cross-border issues for which combining expertise and limited resources, while ensuring global impact, is crucial. What might a collaborative advocacy model for offshore issues look like? There are some examples of creative collaborative advocacy around foreign investment, such as the International Articulation of those Affected by Vale, a platform for people and organizations affected by a single company. But the sheer volume of players, countries, and areas of expertise implicated in the Panama Papers dwarfs what might be required for advocacy around one business. In building larger collaborations, however, there is the question of organizations’ willingness to work together. As Gerard Ryle describes for journalism, advocacy groups often closely guard their missions, contacts, resources, and campaigns. There are also groups that, like The Times, might consider themselves to be big enough to do it alone. How might this tendency be overcome? What tools might advocates already have at their disposal for doing so?

Part of the value of collaborative models lies precisely in the way they are able to mimic the scale of the model of power they are up against. The nature of the offshore world is that it takes advantage of borders, jurisdictions, and regimes at will, both using them and ignoring them to hide wealth. Effective advocacy work around this world could more effectively contest this model of power through international collaboration that similarly crosses boundaries to its advantage. As advocacy opportunities develop in the unfolding of the Panama Papers, advocates would do well to take cues on how this might be done from the groundbreaking collaborative journalism that brought these Papers to light.


*Meghan L. Morris is an Affiliated Researcher at Dejusticia (the Center for Law, Justice and Society)