Journalist reveals dangers of working on Panama Papers

German journalist Frederik Obermaier (above) was behind the Panama Papers investigation with Bastian Obermayer, his colleague at Munich-based daily Suddeutsche Zeitung.
PHOTO: AFP

For more than a year, investigative journalist Frederik Obermaier - one half of the German duo at the heart of the Panama Papers revelation - lived a life that seemed better suited for the pages of a thriller.

He and Bastian Obermayer, his colleague at Munich-based daily Suddeutsche Zeitung, wrestled with fear and paranoia as the names of drug cartel members and world leaders surfaced among the 11.5 million documents leaked from Panamian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

They chained their computers to the wall to prevent them from being carried off, worked in a secured room armed with a vault and an alarm system and joined forces with hundreds of journalists from all corners of the world to comb through the treasure trove of confidential data.

When the story finally broke in April, it brought to light the secret offshore dealings of the rich and powerful, igniting public ire and political and financial fallouts.

But Obermaier - who will be in town next month for the Singapore Writers Festival, which runs from Nov 4 to 13 - tells The Straits Times wryly: "To be honest, I nearly missed the project."

The 34-year-old was on parental leave and had just received an offer from a renowned media outlet in Germany when Obermayer came calling.

"I told Bastian about the offer and shortly afterwards, he called me, asking me not to leave Suddeutsche Zeitung as there may be an interesting investigation. I thought it was a trick to keep me there - especially as he didn't tell me any details," says Obermaier.

"So we met in the evening, in a shady corner of a Greek tavern near where we both live. There, he told me about John Doe and the Mossack Fonseca data and gave me some names. I was electrified."

It was Obermayer, 38, who had, late one night early last year, received an anonymous e-mail that would set off the world's most massive data leak.

"Hello, this is John Doe," it read. "Interested in data?"

In the months that followed, John Doe - whose identity still remains unknown - sent more than 2.6TB of data, exposing an intricate web of corruption and tax evasion.

"The more names of notorious individuals we found, the more I was scared," says Obermaier.

"I mean, hey, they were members of drug cartels, of the mafia, (Syrian president) Bashar al-Assad's cousin, the best friend of (Russian president) Vladimir Putin, guys close to (Libyan dictator) Muammar Gaddafi. In other words, questionable people you don't want to mess with."

It soon became clear the leaked documents had to be handled with utmost care and caution, even for two seasoned journalists who had lifted the lid on financial scandals and Germany's weapons dealings.

"We asked our boss for a specially secured project room, with a vault and alarm system. We chained our PCs to the wall - and then came the part my girlfriend is still making fun of me about," says Obermaier. "I bought glitter nail polish and painted the screws of our computers."

If anyone tampered with their computers, he adds, the polish would likely crack, a signal that something was up.

Although the pair turned to the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists to handle the deluge of material, only Obermaier and Obermayer had direct access to John Doe, with whom they communicated over various encrypted channels.

The source's anonymity is not just a necessity - "My life is in danger. No meeting ever," John Doe had told them - but also a safeguard.

"The authenticity of the data and public interest are what counts for me. It is important that I can trust the documents. The source and his or her motivation are secondary for me as long as the source makes no conditions," says Obermaier.

"And although I'm very interested in the individual behind the pseudonym, I think staying anonymous is the best John Doe could have done for his or her safety - and for ours."

He adds: "Someone could put a pistol to my head and I wouldn't be able to lead him to John Doe. What better protection could John Doe have?"

Already, some journalists who worked on the project have suffered repercussions.

Obermaier rattles off a laundry list of casualties: a Venezuelan journalist dismissed by Ultimas Noticias, a pro-regime newspaper; and a Tunisian partner's website, the online magazine Inkyfada, hit by hackers after it reported on Tunisian involvement in the Panama Papers.

Closer to Singapore, Hong Kong daily Ming Pao's executive chief editor Keung Kwok Yuen was dismissed the very day the paper carried a front-page report on Hong Kongers named in the leak.

It was, the paper said, a cost-cutting exercise, but hundreds took to the streets in protest, believing the veteran editor's dismissal to be politically motivated.

Newspaper colleagues in Panama, meanwhile, took to printing the first issues about the leak at "a secret location, for fear that someone would use violence to stop their work", says Obermaier.

And in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa tweeted the names, private details and photos of reporters involved in the Panama Papers investigation.

"The message was clear: He wanted to put them under pressure. All these happenings are unacceptable," says Obermaier.

"Society needs a free press and if the rich and the powerful try to attack freedom of the press, we should all raise our voices. If you fight one of us, you fight all of us, you fight free society."

The thrills and spills behind the scenes of the Panama Papers saga are captured in the German duo's book, The Panama Papers: Breaking The Story Of How The Rich And Powerful Hide Their Money.

Since its publication in June, its film rights have been snapped up by Netflix.

At the Singapore Writers Festival on Nov 12, Obermaier is set to take on issues such as personal privacy, public accountability and transparency in the Internet age in his lecture Privacy Versus Surveillance: What The Panama Papers Mean For Everyone In The 21st Century.

On the same day, he will discuss the changing face of journalism at the panel The World In The Age Of Digital Journalism.

Besides the rise of data journalism, he sees collaboration as one of the ways forward. The Panama Papers project, after all, took the work of more than 400 journalists.

"In the past, investigative journalists were lone wolves, not sharing anything. But projects like the Panama Papers have shown what we can accomplish if we work together and share radically," he says.

At the same time, adds Obermaier, whose frank responses are peppered with frequent bursts of humour, the nature of journalists made them the project's greatest risk too.

"What can I say, journalists are chatty people. They love to speak about their job. I felt sure it would leak, to be honest. And I was sure we would lose stories along the way," he quips.

"But I am very happy it didn't in the end and that was because everyone on the team understood that the story was better for everyone if we published at the same time."

Investigative journalists - such as American Seymour Hersh, who exposed the mass killing of civilians in Vietnam by US troops - have long fascinated Obermaier, but he says "in high school, I didn't even dare work for the school magazine as I thought I couldn't write".

"My teachers also were of this opinion. I got the worst grade in a test with the topic Article Writing."

He started off studying political science in university - but met journalism students there and fell into their world.

"I was thrilled by what they told me about their studies. I started studying journalism, besides political science - and I've never regretted it."

His passion has yet to wane. He is still in love with journalism and its ideals, even at a time when the industry looks to be on the rocks.

And if dwindling trust is an issue journalists find themselves grappling with, they have to work hard to regain it, says Obermaier.

"We can do this only by responsible in-depth reporting. It is the duty of us journalists to have a critical view on the world, on the rich and the powerful, and to make wrongdoings public," he adds.

"This may sound a bit pathetic, but I believe in it."

When asked what he saw as his mission in releasing the data, he promptly dismisses "mission" as too big a word.

"I simply did my job - informing people about wrongdoings. The Panama Papers showed that there is a whole parallel world offshore in which the rich and powerful enjoy the freedom to avoid not just taxes, but also all kinds of laws they find inconvenient," he says.

"We should always keep in mind - the offshore world is not designed for the blue-collar worker or average earner. It's not for the 99 per cent."

The Panama Papers, he says, show that a person needs at least €1 million (S$1.53 million) before he can head offshore and see his taxes drop. The twisted reality, he points out, is that the more you have, the easier it is to pay less tax.

To him, the most important result of the leak is how it has sparked a fierce worldwide debate about tax havens and anonymous companies, and the threat they pose to society and democracy.

There are many other Mossack Fonsecas out there, after all, where the uber-rich can head for shelter, says Obermaier.

"Our democracy is at stake. People will lose faith when they see that the rich and the powerful do not stick to the rules that govern how lower- and middle-income earners pay tax," he says.

"There are already signs of deep hatred towards the elites and scorn for democracy. This will only increase if politicians keep ignoring the issue."

But the Panama Papers are not just about tax evasion. The documents show that non-transparent company structures allow for all sorts of financial misconduct, such as money-laundering, and help criminals hide their wrongdoings.

Obermaier says: "We have to stop this. To be precise: We, politicians, citizens, taxpayers, have to stop it."

asyiqins@sph.com.sg

The Straits Times is the official media partner of the Singapore Writers Festival. For more stories on the festival, go to www.straitstimes.com/tags/ singapore-writers-festival-2016

BOOK IT/ THE WORLD IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL JOURNALISM

Where: Play Den @ The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

When: Nov 12, 10am

Admission: Festival pass event, $20 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

BOOK IT / PRIVACY VERSUS SURVEILLANCE: WHAT THE PANAMA PAPERS MEAN FOR EVERYONE IN THE 21ST CENTURY

Where: Victoria Theatre, 9 Empress Place

When: Nov 12, 4pm

Admission: $25 from Sistic


This article was first published on October 18, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

More about
Journalism

VIDEOS TO WATCH

SERVICES