The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published on 9 May an interactive database offering a window into some of the 11.5 million documents leaked from law firm Mossack Fonseca – The Panama Papers, the biggest leak in journalism history to date.
The database exposes 320,000 offshore companies, and it includes data from the Panama Papers, which uncovered nearly 214,000 offshore entities, as well as over 100,000 more companies revealed as part of the Offshore Leaks investigation in 2013.
More than 370 journalists from around the world have been investigating the Panama Papers for over a year, after an anonymous source leaked the documents to two reporters from German newspaper Süeddeustche Zeitung, who enlisted the ICIJ to help.
Revelations based on the data have been making headlines since 3 April, when the leak was announced – leading with a story on a money network tied to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The graph database allows people to explore the offshore companies created by Mossack Fonseca in 21 different jurisdictions, and find the shareholders, intermediaries and addresses connected to them.
Mar Cabra, editor of the ICIJ Data and Research Unit, explained the ICIJ found "it was legally safe but also a transparency matter to publish this data," speaking at the News Impact Summit in London yesterday (12 May).
"We also wanted to start tapping into the public's power to crowdsource tips and stories that we probably may have missed."
Cabra and Helena Bengtsson, editor for data projects at the Guardian, explained how journalists can search and analyse the database, and what finding someone's name in the data means.
There are four types of 'nodes' that can be found in the database:
officers: people or corporations that are directors, shareholders, or beneficiaries of offshore companies;
the offshore companies themselves, called entities;
intermediaries: people and organisations, such as banks, that made it possible to create offshore companies or trusts;
addresses: any address connected to any officers, entities or intermediaries.
Other terms you might find in the database are explained in the Frequently Asked Questions section of the site.
You can search the database by name – one of the most popular searches at present is 'Trump' – and even by area, which local journalists will find helpful when checking to see if there is any connection to people or companies in their patch.
Here is what the result of a search for Emma Watson – who was revealed as the beneficiary of an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands – looks like:
Clicking once on an entity opens up a box with more details, such as the date a company was incorporated, and whether it is still active. Double-clicking displays other addresses, officers, intermediaries or entities connected.
The data can be downloaded under a creative commons license, so journalists can work on their own computers.
So what happens once you have found someone's name in the data? Bengtsson, who worked on the Guardian's investigation into the offshore connections to the British property market, explained this is only step one.
"The job doesn't stop with us finding a name. For every name we found there was an excruciating amount of reporting.
"You should look at a database as you look upon an interviewed person or at a source – it can lie to you. You have to ask the right questions.
"It's really important especially with data like this, that is leaked, that we do our duty and do the conventional reporting that we have to do.
"We have to stay investigative journalists and do our due diligence."
Making sure you have identified the right person and the right organisation where similar names could appear in searches is key, as well as understanding that finding someone's name in the data does not automatically mean they are involved in illegal activities.
Before being able to access the database, a disclaimer pops up telling users that "there are legitimate reasons for having offshore companies".
"We do not intend to suggest or imply that any persons, companies or other entities included in the ICIJ Offshore Leaks Database have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly," it says.
Cabra explained one of the reasons the database was published was to enable tax agencies to compare it to their own records, and see whether the offshore companies were reported.
"This is what the project is about, about exposing secrecy and exposing a system that is opaque and happens in parallel to the economy that you and I belong to.
"The reason that we looked into the documents for such a long time was to try to find those patterns of the system, how the system worked…
"We've learned at the ICIJ over several leaks that instead of trying to throw names to see what you find, instead of going from the outside and diving into the data, let's try to see what the data tells us and build the story from there."
Journalists who want to access the entirety of the documents can email their requests to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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