An Interview with Bastian Obermayer
“Leaks have an important control function”

Bastian Obermayer (left) and Frederik Obermaier played a leading role in exposing the revelations of the <i>Panama Papers</i>
Bastian Obermayer (left) and Frederik Obermaier played a leading role in exposing the revelations of the Panama Papers | Foto (Ausschnitt): © Stephanie Füssenich

Bastian Obermayer, investigative reporter at the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, played a leading role in exposing the revelations of the Panama Papers. He talked to us about journalistic responsibility and the social significance of leaking data.

Mr. Obermayer, in 2015 you were contacted by an anonymous source, who went by the name of John Doe, and who had internal documents of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca sent to you. It was about letter-box companies, with whose help tax evasion was taking place and illegal business transactions were being executed all over the world. When did you first become aware of the dimensions of this data leak?

As soon as the name of Vladimir Putin’s best friend cropped up in the documents, along with the names of other heads of state and government, we realised – this was an international story that was going to cause quite a stir. In the end the reactions to the publications were, in fact, much greater than we ever imagined when we were doing the research. There were mass demonstrations, governments were shaken.

When it was working on the data, the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” newspaper decided to cooperate with the ICIJ (The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists). On April 3rd, 2016, 100 media outlets simultaneously published the results of your work. How important is international cooperation when it comes to leaking data?

It was quite early on in the process when we started thinking about working with the ICIJ, because the first data tracks led us to South America, Africa and the Middle East. German readers are not particularly interested in a medium-sized scandal in Namibia. Nevertheless, we did not want the stories to fade into insignificance. At the same time it quickly became clear that there was no way we could go it alone. The amounts of data were huge with thousands of stories to tell. And ultimately, the fact that 400 colleagues all over the world had access to the data was the one thing that protected us. Many people wanted to stop the publication, but that would not have been possible as so many people were working on the project at the same time.

We have very good conditions for investigative journalism in Germany

What is the legal situation in Germany when publishing data that only in the rarest cases has been obtained in a lawful way?

If the information is of public interest, reporters in Germany may also work with illegally acquired data. In the USA, for example, this is not allowed. Of course, we must not make any mistakes, when it comes to the reporting, or we will be sued. On the whole, we have very good conditions for investigative journalism in Germany. In general, we can assume that we will not be physically attacked, arrested or slandered. In many countries with authoritarian regimes this is really quite different. After the Panama Papers some of our colleagues received death threats, were publicly denounced, dismissed or forced to leave their country for a while.

Journalistic publication of data must be sustained by law

Despite the freedom of the press you are obliged, of course, to respect the protection of individual rights. To what extent does this affect the reporting?

Germany is more stringent with the protection of privacy. My American colleagues can write, for example, about managers and bankers being involved in private offshore transactions - provided the facts are right. This is possible in Germany only in cases of suspected illegality, mismanagement or abuse of any kind. It is not, however, per se illegal to have a letter-box firm. This is why we were also not allowed to report on German managers enjoying their holiday villas that had been organised via an offshore company.

In contrast to Wikileaks you chose not to publish all of the raw data. Why?

We have to know what we publish and of course we need to consider the protection of privacy. This is not possible with 11.5 million documents. They might contain things, the consequences of which we cannot foresee, people could suffer. The second reason is the fact that we have to protect our source, i.e. the person who calls himself John Doe. If we were to publish all the data, we could not be sure whether some of it might lead back to our source. And besides that, we are not an instrument of the public prosecutor or the tax fraud authorities.

You have already mentioned how important it is that the journalistic publication of data is sustained by law. The whistleblower, the informant, however, has to reckon with criminal prosecution.

The criminalisation of whistleblowers is a huge problem. There is hardly any country in the world that provides adequate protection for them. That, however, is exactly what they need. If it turns out that the information leaked by the whistleblower is of value to society, then he or she must go unpunished. This, however, is virtually impossible. In the case of the Luxembourg Leaks, a reporter, Edouard Perrin, even has to stand trial. If journalists are prosecuted for receiving information from whistleblowers, we then have an even bigger problem – one that implies that an interested lobby is trying to stop the leaking of unpleasant information entirely.

Can leaks change attitudes in society

Thousands of Germans have availed themselves of the services of Mossack Fonseca .What effect have the “Panama Papers” had on Germany?

In Germany a new law, among other things, was introduced fairly quickly, obliging German citizens to declare whether they have an offshore company and where the money came from. In addition, the European Parliament set up a committee of inquiry to examine the revelations. We will have to wait and see if, in the long run, anything will change. We are not activists, but journalists. We are not doing battle against the offshore world, just reporting on it.

All over the world we are hearing more and more demands for the abolition of tax havens - also due to the “Panama Papers”. Can leaks change attitudes in society in the long term?

One of the core messages that this leak - and every other major leak - has got across to the world is that no one can feel safe any more. Leaks perform an important social control function. Anyone who does something illegal or disreputable and then tries to hide it, now has to reckon with the fact that sooner or later there will be a leak somewhere; that there is a person out there who no longer wants just to stand by and watch or join in. Data can be transported so fast, a USB-stick is all you need. At the moment the Panama Papers are considered to be a huge leak. In a few years’ time we might well have got used to such dimensions, but that does not mean that leaks will be any less important.

Bastian Obermayer, born in 1977, is Deputy Head of the Investigative Research Department at the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper and a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). For his reporting and research he has received, among others, the Theodor Wolff Prize, the Henri Nannen Prize and the Wächter Prize.

Bastian Obermayer,  Frederik Obermaier: The Panama Papers. Breaking the Story of How the Rich and Powerful Hide Their Money, One World Publications 2016. The publication has been translated into various languages worldwide.