The world knows it as the Panama Papers. In the biggest data leak in history, more than 11 million documents lifted the lid on how the rich and powerful – from world leaders to film stars – use tax havens to conceal their wealth. The files leaked from secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca show how its clients were able to launder money, dodge sanctions and avoid tax.

It all began when an anonymous source contacted Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, reporters with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, seeking to expose this global scandal. In the midst of the worldwide flurry caused by this leak of documents, Obermaier describes how events unfolded and the challenges of bringing the case to light:

How did the Panama Papers saga begin?

It started with an encrypted message, which said: “Hello, this is John Doe, are you interested in secret data?" And that’s a great beginning for an investigative journalist. Nevertheless, we often get similar messages, and most of them are just unworthy, because it is usually people saying they have secret documents and then they send a link to an article that’s not really secret or useful for us.

However, it soon turned out that the data being offered to us by the source was internal data from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that sets up offshore companies worldwide. For us this, was very interesting, as in past investigations we often found offshore companies setup by Mossack Fonseca being involved in scandals. However, that usually used to be the end of our investigations because we couldn’t identify the owners of these companies. But now, with this data, we can see behind these curtains and find out who is the real and beneficial owner of a company. So this offered us great insight into this secret offshore world.

However, it soon turned out to be a little bit too much data for two journalists to handle. 2.6 terabytes is quite an unimaginable amount. If you imagine this data as books, it would be millions of books. This was when we decided to involve the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. Bastian (Obermayer) and myself are members of the same. But we still had to convince our colleagues, as it is not normal for investigative journalists to share exclusive material with outsiders, or in this case, hundreds of other journalists.

Did you get a chance to meet the source?

No, we haven’t met the source. We didn’t even speak to the source on phone. It was only encrypted communications. No meetings or anything like that.

The Panama Papers story has been building up for some time now. Previously, of course, there were others like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning and so on. Other than Snowden’s leaks that had paramount effect on people as he became a big story himself, do you think a saturation point is approaching on the ultimate effects of such data leaks on the system?

I think we are living in a time of whistleblowers and leaks. We always speak about the big leaks like Snowden and Panama Papers, but there are hundreds of leaks everyday that are delivered only to say a local newspaper. For example, we have had dozens of leaks over the past years, but they involved smaller topics. But I think there are many people out there who see wrongdoings in their daily business and decide to make this public and turn to the media. But at the same time, the technical ways of getting data out have become easier as well. Ten years ago, a USB stick had a maximum capacity of 1 GB. Today, they can store 1 TB. But analysing this data is also getting ever more complicated. So we journalists have to learn on how to deal with data on such a scale.

This is indeed the era of whistleblowers, but many whistleblowers end up with a really bad fate. Snowden being trapped in Russia, Manning being in jail, [Luxembourg Leaks whistleblower] Antoine Deltour’s prosecution, and many other such examples exist. As journalists, we have to deal with how to protect them. This was a huge flaw in the past, that journalists knew how to deal with the information but did not know how to protect the whistleblower. For example, if this John Doe would ask me if he or she should reveal his or her identity, I would say it is your decision, but I wouldn’t do it because the best protection for this source is to stay anonymous even to us. Even if someone would go after Bastian or me, they could torture us, but we wouldn’t be able to reveal the identity because we don’t know it.

The fallout of the Panama Papers, such as the recent anti-corruption summit in London, has been labelled a sham. John Doe, quoted in a recent article by Süddeutsche Zeitung said that the outcomes until now had been unsatisfactory. How does the media take it from here?

For me, it is not only about this conference in London because I think that for the English-speaking world, this conference was a big venue. But, on a more global perspective, there is huge movement and debate currently against tax havens. Now, John Doe has put everything on the table and politicians have to decide whether they only want to speak big words or they actually want to do something about this.

It is a task for society, and us journalists, to review what has been done, let‘s say in half a year, because at the moment, it is pretty easy for politicians to raise their voices against tax havens. I mean it is great, you can’t lose anything by saying so, but the next step would be changing legislation and that is a critical point. This is the point where we have to stick to this topic and review what has been done, what has David Cameron done, what has Barack Obama done. We have to report about it and find out whether anything significant has been achieved.

John Doe has also said that the initial data was offered to the mainstream media organisations and even Wikileaks, but they all refused. Why do you think that happened?

First of all, I don’t know whether it was offered first, simultaneously or even after being offered to us. I am sure there is a review process today in these media outlets on why this could have happened. But I think there could be a simple reason – the data is not the kind where you have a look and everything makes sense immediately. You have to know the specific wordings, sentence structures and terminologies. So if you do not address this material to journalists who are used to this sort of data, it is not that easy to understand its value.

Wikileaks has huge experience in dealing with leaks, but they have been more famous for analysing and publishing material from the intelligence sector, and are not really specialists on issues such as tax havens. This might be a reason. Another reason could be Wikileaks is getting so much material that it is hard to cross-analyse the exact worth of all the data. I can’t blame them either. It was funny to see Wikileaks, a few days into the Panama Papers stories, asking Süddeutsche Zeitung about why it was not making all the data public, and at the same time reading that John Doe had offered the very same data to them.

Why did Süddeutsche Zeitung not make all the data public, and instead opt for selective release?

The first main reason was Germany's press laws, which do not allow the dumping of all this data because there are individuals in there that have either done nothing illegal, or they may have done something illegal but are not of public interest. The second reason is that we could not be 100% sure that in the original data, there could not have been a hint leading to John Doe. I really like the idea of putting as much of the original data into the public domain as possible, but for me, the protection of the source is even more important. We are speaking of a person’s life here, and I hope the critics understand.

Why do you think John Doe picked you and Bastian Obermayer for this leak?

Bastian and I have speculated about this before, but we don’t want to go into details of that. But one reason may be that over the years, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and especially our investigative unit, have done in-depth reporting on tax havens. There is a certain expertise at Süddeutsche Zeitung on this issue, but the rest of the reasons why [we were approached] are just speculation.

You have talked about the risk of sources being exposed. In India, we have a vibrant and free press, but in just the last month, two Indian journalists have been shot and killed. This is not unheard of in India, and many Right To Information activists have faced the same fate. How do you make decisions on what to publish and if a story, as important as it may be, could endanger lives?
As a hypothetical question, I couldn’t give a definitive answer. Personally, the life of a person is more important than any reporting. You can’t wage a life against reporting.

Panama Papers is a huge story. Some of the names that have come up in the papers include the management of media groups. Two such names from Indian media houses have also cropped up. As a journalist, how do you approach this?

I think it would be naive to think that owners of media groups are doing everything in the correct manner and not making use of tax havens. I think that given the magnitude of this data, it is only logical that there are media owners in there as well. In Germany, we have a big discussion on the role of media and many people do not trust traditional media anymore (in Germany it is called "Lügenpresse", or the lying press). In this context, it is even more important to make such things transparent. There were several colleagues in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists who were part of this project and found names of executives and owners of the own media organisation at which they worked. It was clear to all of us that we have to report about it. For example, we have a colleague in Ukraine who regularly writes for the Kiev Post, and the owner of the Kiev Post is in the Panama Papers data. This was reported. It was important, so why should we not report about it?

Personally, I am not sure how many journalists will, or be allowed to, run such information in their own newspapers.

There are discussions about it. For example, I think it was during the Luxembourg Leaks where The Guardian’s name cropped up. In my opinion, The Guardian found a good way of dealing with it because they published it in their own newspaper on day one of news about the LuxLeaks being put out. That’s the right way to deal with it, and ICIJ is encouraging all its members to handle issues like these transparently.

At the same time, with a project like this in which so many journalists are involved, it is a great corrective because if one journalist decides he does not want to write about his or her publication’s owner, that person can be rest assured that there are dozens of other journalists who will. This is a great guarantee for transparency in this field.

The Panama Papers data has often been dismissed as biased. People called it too Russia-centric and many started questioning motives behind the leaks. Did these anomalies come to your mind as well?

To be honest, we had to learn to deal with this. If you take the Russia example, there are many friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin in the data. But at the same time, the President of Ukraine was in the data as well. He and Putin do not like each other. So for me, that was quite obvious that there are people from every region around the world in the database.

Regarding the missing Americans, that is actually wrong, there are hundreds of Americans in the lists but they are not the prominent figures. There is a simple explanation. Ramon Fonseca, co-founder of Mossack Fonseca, told Associated Press in an interview that their firm didn’t focus on American clients much and concentrated more on areas such as Europe and Latin America, and that was the reason why not many big American names came through.

So what we have to learn from this is that we have to make such processes much more transparent, even if we have to repeat ourselves many times. If there are questions from the public, we have to answer them as many times as needed so that the entire process remains honest.