How To Read The Panama Papers

On Sunday, several major news outlets reported on "the Panama Papers," a massive leak of a Panama-based law firm that handles offshore accounts. The Mossack Fonseca document dump, which consists of more than 11 million documents, contains potentially damaging information about several world leaders and many of their associates. If you're curious about what exactly these documents reveal, you're probably wondering how to read the Panama Papers directly.

Well, you can't — at least, not yet. So far, there's no centralized source through which one can access the documents themselves. In fact, news organizations with access to the leak haven't yet reported on all of its contents. This means that, while there are plenty of articles about the documents (see here and here) or the English version of the original scoop by German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, you can't read most of the raw documents themselves yet. But you can read some of them.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, one of the main groups responsible for analyzing the leak, has provided a browsable list of "power players" who are referenced in the documents. Click on a name, and you'll see a summary of exactly what they allegedly did. Scroll down a bit to the "related documents" section, and presto — you'll see links to the documents regarding that individual that have been made public.

That may seem less than satisfactory, but there are a lot of good reasons for the entirety of the Panama Papers not yet being online. For one, not all of the individuals mentioned in the leak are necessarily criminals, and it's possible that the documents contain private information about them. Moreover, the documents collectively amount to 2.6 terabytes — a staggering amount of data. Providing the web space and bandwidth to make all of it viewable would be prohibitively expensive, and in all likelihood would crash more than a few servers extremely quickly.

There's also a strategic reason news organizations are withholding some of the data. In the 24-hour news cycle, stories come and go with such speed that it's easy for the important ones to get lost in the shuffle. By staggering the release of the papers, these publications are ensuring that with each new revelation, the story stays in the news. This strategy was employed to great effect by The Guardian a few years ago, when it slowly but continuously released the documents leaked by Edward Snowden.

One interesting wrinkle in all of this is that WikiLeaks, which is not known to have been involved in the leak of the Panama Papers, sent out a tweet which implies that they have possession of the entire trove of documents and that they may release it in the near future. It's a cryptic tweet and could well amount to nothing, but it effectively drives home the fact that, as incriminating as some of the available leaks are, we haven't scraped the tip of the iceberg yet.