The Making of the Pandora Papers

More than 600 journalists from 117 countries and territories released the Pandora Papers to the public on October 3 after investigating and researching for two years. Covering more than 11.9 million financial records, the Pandora Papers became the largest leak of records and investigation in journalism history, according to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Michael Hudson, a senior editor at the ICIJ said that the leaked records revealed how the “offshore money machine operates in every corner of the planet, including the world’s largest democracies.” 

The Pandora Papers are the result of a global investigation involving tedious data mining and rigorous fact-checking and reporting done by journalists from 150 media partners across the globe. But how did over 600 journalists manage to work in secret for over two years on an international investigation into the global elite and their assets?

The Original Reporting

The first step was to acquire the data. The ICIJ received data from sources over several months, remotely transferring data onto their secure servers, but the size of the data was so large that ICIJ team members eventually met directly with sources to pick up hard drives of data. Ultimately, the team collected 2.94 terabytes of records, emails, pdfs and spreadsheets, which became the foundation of the Pandora Papers. 

Once the data was obtained from a total of 14 different offshore providers, the documents were uploaded to Datashare, ICIJ’s research and analytics tool. According to ICIJ, Datashare can take millions of files of different formats and make all of them “searchable, filterable and easy to analyze.” Datashare allowed the journalists to perform advanced actions such as tagging files and batch-searching the database, the process of running multiple queries through a search engine at onces. 

“Starting in late 2019, a small team of mostly ICIJ staffers began working with the leaked data — indexing it, reviewing, doing a lot of the early analysis and reporting that was crucial to making the investigation a success,” Hudson said. By cultivating initial story ideas and making discoveries within the leaked data, he said that reporters were able to benefit from the work that other ICIJ reporters and the ICIJ data team had been working on a year before most journalists joined. 

Scilla Alecci, an investigative reporter and regional coordinator for the Pandora Papers, said a team of less than ten ICIJ journalists then sifted through the data to prepare the project before other members and media partners joined. Alecci told Mediafile that her role was to lay a foundation for the project by going through the data and finding names of politicians and other elites who had been convicted or suspected of crimes.

Communication Between Reporters

Journalists shared findings that connected key figures to offshore assets and involvement through the Global iHub, an encrypted and secure communication platform. Hudson said that fact-checking also occurred between journalists on iHub when journalists shared their drafts towards the end of the reporting process. 

Will Fitzgibbon, a senior reporter from ICIJ, said that ICIJ had five fact checkers on the Pandora Papers stories. Emilia Díaz-Struck, ICIJ’s research editor and Latin America coordinator, said that every analysis goes through two to three rounds of fact-checking in addition to all data being cross-referenced against public records. 

Alecci said that she would share her drafts to journalists on iHub to hear their opinion and see if she had made any mistakes in her reporting. She said that even if what she wrote was not factually wrong, she needed to make sure that her story was written in a culturally representative tone, which would only be achieved through the help of reporters from their respective countries. 

Communication between journalists on iHub also included words of celebration and camaraderie, according to Hudson. When journalists posted findings uncovering links between high-profile individuals to the offshore system, they would receive replies that would “light up like crazy”, Hudson said.

Encouraged by the reaction on other journalists’ posts, Hudson said that the journalists would become motivated to share more of their work and findings on iHub. Journalists would become “competitive” in a positive way that would lead reporters to become more collaborative. 

The Investigation Turns Global

In November of 2020 larger numbers of ICIJ reporters and partner journalists started data mining, the process of generating new information by analyzing large amounts of data. A large number of the reporters were partners that had previously worked with the ICIJ on other investigative projects like the Panama Papers, according to Alecci. Journalists from countries the ICIJ had not worked with before were also recruited onto the project, such as Bosnia, Thailand and Mauritania. 

Hudson said that there were soon hundreds of people working on the Pandora Papers, where the full team continued to make more discoveries within the data, do external reporting, and write and edit the stories. 

Reporters continued to use iHub in order to provide and ask for information on the stories they were working on. With the number of journalists increasing around the globe, regional coordinators from ICIJ helped match reporters so that they could share information for their stories.  

“We’ll spot something, a post, that one of our African partners has put up and we realize it has a connection to Switzerland,” said Hudson, describing an example. “We’ll write a Swiss reporter we know who probably knows something about this and the African reporter and say, ‘Hey, the two of you should probably get together because you may be looking at the same thing at different ends of the same trail of transactions.’”

Hudson said journalists who joined the project agreed to two “cardinal rules” made by the ICIJ: publish only at an agreed upon time and share new findings with everyone working on the project in real time. 

“Nobody tells anybody what story to do. You do the stories that are best for your news organization, for your audience,” Hudson said. 

Without designated roles, reporters would take an individual approach to analyzing and investigating the same base data, sharing their progress and drafts throughout the procedure. He said this approach allowed reporters and different media organizations to look at the data from all angles, ensuring they found the most stories along the way. 

“No one is issuing orders, making demands. It’s incredibly collaborative. I can truly say I have never been part of anything like this ICIJ project,” said Greg Miller, a Washington Post journalist who worked on the Pandora Papers. “In media, we often think of ourselves in competition with one another, but a massive undertaking like this requires teamwork.” 

The Results

In the United States, the Pandora Papers have sparked momentum for a new bipartisan anti-money laundering legislation known as the Enablers Act. The proposal cited the findings from the Pandora Papers, which revealed more than 200 trusts connected to people from more than 40 countries were settled in the United States. The investigation also revealed the operations of Baker McKenzie— a multinational law firm in Chicago, which had been benefiting from “work done for controversial people and companies,” according to the ICIJ. 

The Pandora Papers have exposed a wide array of global leaders involved in offshore finance as well, including: King Abdullah II from Jordan, the president of Chile, the prime minister of the Czech Republic, the president of Kenya and associates from President Putin’s inner circle. The Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis and his party ANO lost the country’s parliamentary election soon after the Pandora Papers were released. 

“These are things that affect real people. It covers up crimes. It covers up frauds. It contributes to environmental degradation. It contributes to worker deaths,” Hudson said. 

Saleck Zeid, a journalist from Mauritania who worked on the Pandora Papers, told MediaFile that his story on Mauritania’s former minister and his tax evasion processes was widely shared by citizens in the country. He said that people in Mauritania wanted more journalists to investigate illicit behavior in the country, as reflected in the Pandora Papers. Yet some media organizations in Mauritania “still don’t have the courage to publish the subjects” according to Zeid. 

“The reason behind that is the relationship between individuals, tribes, political opinions, or the money, because some of them get paid to publish or to not publish,” Zeid said. 

Earlier this month more than 130 countries signed an agreement to set a minimum corporate tax rate of 15% for companies earning more than $866 million a year, according to the New York Times, with calls to end tax havens reverberating throughout the international community

Hudson said what made the Pandora Papers partnership successful was the courage of journalists in countries located in places that are hard to do journalism in, especially where investigative reporting is replied to with threats

“These are folks who long before we came along were doing courageous and great work,” Hudson said. “But bringing everyone together is helping amplify their work and get the story and make their stories more global.”

Graphic by Michael Kohler

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