by Ron Mwangaguhunga
Reports on the demise of journalism, to borrow a line from Mark Twain, have been highly exaggerated. If we learned anything from the massive Panama Papers leak this month, it is that investigative journalists is needed now more than ever in this globally interconnected world with infinite opportunities for mischief. Edward Snowden called the 11.5 million leaked documents “the biggest leak in the history of data journalism.” We are still, as of press time, dealing with the fallout and aftermath (Iceland’s Prime Minister is the first and thus far only political casualty).
What do we know about the Panama Papers? It has been called “the WikiLeaks of the rich and powerful,” and not without reason. An unremunerated whistleblower using the pseudonym “John Doe” leaked forty years’ worth of highly-charged documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca to the German newspaper Suddeutche Zeitung regarding the complicated tax-avoidance schemes of the mega wealthy.
Who was mentioned in the papers? It does not help matters that mingled among the members of the Overclass listed are human traffickers, bank robbers, political leaders, arms dealers as well as their family members. Most sordid little cocktail party ever. This month we all got an unsavory little looksee into the way law firms, banks and front companies all aid the wealthy in moving money across borders, depriving their principal places of residence needed tax revenues. The global middle and working classes, of course, don’t have access to the wise counsel at sleazy Panamanian law firms. Further, a 2015 Forbes article by Cameron King noted that “families earning less than $100,000 a year have seen their tax audit risk increase by 17% since 2010” while “Americans earning more than $100,000 per year has seen their risk of a tax audit decrease by 8%.” Swell and dandy!
Timing, as well as perception, is everything. First: timing. As Americans readied to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s on Tax Day, a moment of particular anxiety for many Americans, these avoidance schemes by the powerful took front-and-center stage. There is also, one cannot fail to note, a Presidential election going on. More on that later. President Obama, clearly reading the political tea leaves, addressed the issue very quickly in a presser. There he called for international tax reform. “Tax avoidance is a big, global problem,” said the President of the United States, in a tone vaguely urgent yet mild enough so as not to rattle too much the donors.
There is also the not insignificant matter of perception. While no Panamanian laws were broken by Mossack Fonseca (Averted Gaze), the whole scheme certainly has a whiff of the sulfur about it. Any list involving two childhood friends of Vladimir Putin, the “favorite contractor” of the former President of Mexico, the cousins of Bashar Assad, the former King of Spain’s sister and the King of Saudi Arabia – how does one put this politely? – would have to fall on the seedier side of the financial spectrum. And this dovetails perfectly into the arguments being made by the two US Presidential outsiders – Bernie Sanders and Trump. This data trove only strengthens both their arguments about how the Overclass is actively raping the workers.
Investigative journalism at its finest throws light on the powerful and corrupt, who would prefer to operate in the shade, out of our field of vision. Over 300 journalists from 109 news organizations sifted through the documents in the virtual newsroom of the imposing-sounding International Consortium of Investigative Journalists providing context to the data trove. If the ICIJ sounds imposing and somewhat stately because it is. They did us all a service and remind us that we have to be vigilant, alighting the darker corners of the global village as well as demanding higher standards from those who would wish to be called our elites.
Ron Mwangaguhunga is a Brooklyn based writer on media, culture and politics. His work has appeared within Huffington Post, IFC and Tribeca Film Festival, Kenneth Cole AWEARNESS, NY Magazine, Paper Magazine, CBS News.com and National Review online to name a few. He is currently the editor of the Corsair.