Day 6

The Panama Papers: how 400 journalists kept the secret

This week, the financial secrets of heads of state, athletes, billionaires and drug lords were exposed in the latest and largest leak from an offshore tax haven. Brent talks to Gerard Ryle, the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, about how they handled the historic data leak.

The world's largest leak needed a secret global reporting force

Vladimir Putin (left), Lionel Messi (middle) and Jackie Chan (right) are some of the high-profile figures named in the Panama Papers that were leaked last week. (cbc.ca)

When Gerard Ryle first saw the stack of documents now known at the Panama Papers, he had no idea how big it would be. But he knew it was something good. 

This week, hundreds of reporters in more than 70 countries unveiled a nearly year-long global investigation and began publishing a series of articles on millions of leaked financial documents. The trove of information is bigger than anything WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden ever obtained.

"We knew we had a big story on our hands. The question was how big," Ryle, the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

People demonstrate against Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson in the aftermath of the leak of the so-called Panama Papers. (Stigtryggur Johannsson/Reuters)

Based out of Washington, The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is a global network of reporters who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories. They were also a regular partner of Germany's Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, which was first on the story. 

We knew we had a big story on our hands. The question was how big.- Gerard Ryle , director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Ryle got the call shortly after reporter Bastian Obermayer got a message from an anonymous source offering to share data.

That source was ready to hand over millions of documents about the offshore accounts of heads of state, rock stars, professional athletes and business moguls. They dated back 40 years and were all from a law firm called Mossack Fonseca.

Ryle, Obermayer and another colleague spent four days poring over the first part of the material and soon realized the revelations were huge and that they would need help. 

Secret global investigative team

Ryle and the ICIJ started assembling the team by looking at all the names in the documents, figuring out where they're from and finding media organizations from those countries, including the CBC and The Toronto Star in Canada. 

"We had a track record in this and we had a certain trust," Ryle says but he knew keeping them quiet would be hard. 

"We asked these reporters to do the opposite of everything they've ever done before as journalists. Keep secrets from their editors and from everyone else," Ryle says. 

We asked these reporters to do the opposite of everything they've ever done before as journalists.- Gerard Ryle , ICIJ  Director

The ICIJ created a private virtual newsroom for the project so when reporters logged on to their computers, they also logged on to these secret accounts. Ryle says it was like a Facebook for communicating with other journalists in other parts of the world. 

The key, he says, was convincing them that working together and staying quiet would produce a much better result. 

Ryle says there were challenges — like when journalists in Brazil wanted to go public with what they knew as they watched the country's financial crisis unfold. But Ryle says the journalists and the media outlets stayed on board. 

"It was a simple sell. First, you had to have a good story and we knew we had that," Ryle says. "From there you can dictate terms. And the only terms the ICIJ dictated was when the story was going to be published." 

The reports started this past weekend, roughly nine months after it all began — and we didn't have to wait long for the Panama Papers fallout to begin. 

Russian president Vladimir Putin is just one of the high-profile politicians implicated in the Panama Papers. (Peter Muhly/Getty Images)

From Kubrick to Cowell, a banker and a duchess

First, the head of Transparency International in Chile resigned in what was an undeniable conflict of interest. Then the Prime Minister of Iceland, the chairman of a major Austrian bank and a FIFA member who sat on the ethics committee followed.

Almost every day this week the leak has implicated a high-profile figure and the impact is expected to grow. 

So far, The Panama Papers implicated Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister David Cameron, the families of Chinese Communist Party members, members of UEFA, The Duchess of York and Simon Cowell, and others.

The documents show the myriad ways in which the rich can exploit secretive offshore tax regimes. Ryle says it's impossible to predict what will happen next, but he did anticipate these types of consequences.

With more than 11 million documents to work with, there could be a lot more revelations in the weeks and months to come. 

"You never know what will happen until it's all over," Ryle says.

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