Joel Konope is a former editor of one of Botswana’s national dailies. Seeing his involvement with the Panama Papers leak, reports in his country’s dailies had it that he and his team worked for America’s CIA. Konope responds to this and tells how he got involved with Panama Papers when he spoke to PAUL OMOROGBE in South Africa.
How did you get involved with Panama papers?
My colleague was at a workshop in Norway when he met some people from ICIJ. That’s how the relationship began. When the leak came out, he was invited to participate in (investigating) the leak. So we were part of the team which eventually had to go for training in Washington on how to understand the data. So we got to know about it from ICIJ.
How did you handle this allegation that you were affiliated with the CIA; what was your response to it?
Basically, it shows that we are now creating impact with what we do on daily basis. People then get to react in a negative way. It is obvious that people are beginning to take us seriously, and I think it was out of anger from the people we were writing about. But it is clear we are not CIA. I think we need to clarify that. We are very transparent about how we are funded.
How are you funded?
We are funded by the Open Society Foundation. It is based in London, and its branch is based in Johannesburg, South Africa. We are also funded by Thomson Reuters Foundation through free training.
What is your relationship with ANCIR?
We are partners in distributing stories. They offer training. They are a hub (for investigative journalism) in the region, so they have us as one of the partners to work with.
Do you have any centres in West Africa?
No. But we have relationships with journalists in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda.
You started the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism?
Yes, I started it in 2015. It has been around for one year.
How come you have that credibility as to be invited by ICIJ?
I have been editor for a newspaper called Botswana Guardian. I think my work has always been known at least in Botswana and partly in the region. I also worked for Mail and Guardian (South Africa) which is very credible. So when it comes to investigative journalism, I have had my fair share of participating strongly.
Why are Panama Papers important to you?
I think it is the issue of accountability. In Panama Papers, in the list, we were dealing with the people from Botswana. It turned out that people like a Supreme Court judge which is the highest court in Botswana, has investments in Panama and British Virgin Islands which he has never declared to anyone. So if such person has not declared such kind of investment, at times it can become an issue of moral standing – how come you have such money somewhere and the public does not know? Why should people know he has investment in Panama? It is important because he is a judge of the highest court. And the (outcome of) litigations depend on how well he conducts himself. It is important for issues of accountability and transparency; because again countries in the British Virgin Islands are known to be countries of tax evaders.
Does it revolve around accountability and not that what they did was wrong?
Just to be clear, what they did cannot be seen immediately to be wrong. But what we know is that when you are going to invest in a country that is known for tax evasion, then questions start to arise: why choose that country that is known for evading tax? Is there anything that you are doing that is wrong? Then it is up to him to explain. But they don’t normally like to explain. They always say they are not doing anything wrong.
So not everybody who is mentioned in Panama Papers is a criminal?
It is correct. Others actually claim that they gave their money to some firms to invest, and that they are not aware they were investing in countries that are seen to be tax evaders. Many are not criminals, but are just trying to get where returns are high. And the returns are high where other criminals are.
How did you come about the names in Panama Papers?
Their names came up because the firm that they were using was the one that was handling their finances. So, anyone that was using that firm became compromised at that level. The judge was the highest. There were no real prominent persons beside the judge. There were other prominent business people. But again, about business people, one of the lawyers that assisted us said that business people are expected to maximize profit, as long as they are not stolen. The issues of morality for business people are treated differently as opposed to a judge. I think the standards are higher for a judge than just a business person. That is how we looked at it, and we found it interesting.