Small leaks make big news. Big leaks make even bigger news. Such was the case of the recent Panama Papers leak that implicated the high and mighty across the world. Amanda Potgieter is an investigative journalist belonging to African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR). PAUL OMOROGBE spoke to her in her Johannesburg, South African base over her involvement in Panama Papers.
How did the Panama papers come to be?
The files were leaked to a German newspaper, called Suddeutsche Zeitung, and they forwarded it to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The ICIJ mined the data, cleaned it up and made it available to newsrooms across the world.
Why were the files sent to ICIJ?
The Panama papers are 11.5 million files and 2.4 terabytes of data, and so the vast volume of it was not possible for one newspaper to start processing, which was why they took it to the ICIJ to assist. The ICIJ made it readable and accessible to normal journalists, and the newsroom partners that the ICIJ picked – that was basically the ICIJ’s role. They also played a role in the coordination. They equally handled the project management aspect which involved deadlines of publication and which people we could go to for right of reply. The ICIJ coordinated it all.
How did African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR) get in on it?
ANCIR is a member of the ICIJ, and that’s how we got in on it. We coordinated the African aspect of it.
How important is the Panama Papers to the ordinary man on the streets?
For me, the importance of the Panama papers to the ordinary man on the streets is all about creating a system of transparency. It is a system where (for instance) we know where taxes are being paid, where taxes are being spent and ultimately that is what the average guy on the streets wants to know: how is my tax money being spent? If it is going into the coffers of a judge who then sends it off to a foreign country and no tax is being paid to his (the man on the street) own country, well firstly it creates an illegal situation. And then it creates an opaque system. Another thing that comes to mind is if judges don’t declare their interests for instance, and they are held in offshore companies which are difficult to get the information from, then it creates a situation where for instance one of his business associates appears in his court, he hasn’t declared that interest, so he could be biased in favour of his business interest because he is not transparent enough to say that he holds business interests in that company. So it will be in his (the judge’s) favour to be lenient on someone who otherwise had been committing corruption or has been involved in tax evasion or whatever crime. But for us, Panama Papers has been about creating a system of transparency. And that ultimately benefits everybody because everybody knows where each other stands.
Are we still going to be hearing more from Panama Papers?
Yes. I don’t think we will stop hearing from Panama Papers for quite some time, because the data is there, it is being mined. People are still finding links, finding new stories. There is definitely going to be a lot more shocking revelations in future.
It is now known that you are involved in Panama Papers. Do you ever fear for your life?
No. No I don’t. I live in a pretty robust society where people aren’t afraid to tell stories. I am lucky in that sense; so I don’t fear for my life.
At the point when you started did you have any idea of who will be implicated?
No, I don’t think we did. Once we started mining some of the data, we realized from the things that we saw, what kind of countries we could start looking at for partner newsrooms from our side, and what budget we had available to provide grants for different newsrooms that we worked with.
Did the need for partner newsrooms arise because of the amount of data?
Well yes. And because we are a network of investigative reporting centres, we don’t do all the stories ourselves; we want to empower newsrooms to get to do the stories themselves.
Did you have an idea of the names that would come out before investigation started?
We could not. We had to do some ‘fishing expedition.’ Well, a lot of the journalists knew there were some dodgy links to some people, but they are not able to prove it. But you really start from the top. I mean in Angola, we started with the president, because we know that his family – his daughter and son – are so interlinked in various companies. They were like the obvious choices to start running their names through the data to see what the links are or if there are any links – it’s a fishing expedition so you are trying to see if there is anything. In terms of the other guys, because the ICIJ had done a lot of the cleaning, they were already linked to a lot of stuff. In Sierra Leone, they discovered there was this diamonds link, so they would flag that to us already because they had not processed so much of the data.