Why Weren't The Panama Papers Publicly Released? The Biggest Leak Went Through Specific Hands For A Reason

The Panama Papers scandal has already caused Iceland's prime minister to resign, but where the trail ends will ultimately be up to the journalists in charge of the rest of the papers and whether or not to release more information. One of the biggest questions right now has to be why weren't the Panama Papers publicly released. The official answer is pretty straightforward: By allowing journalists throughout the world to vet the documents before the general public, the personal interests and information of people who are using these offshore accounts legally are protected.

The 2.6 terabytes of documents allegedly contain information about all of Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca's clients who held companies in the country. Having an offshore account isn't illegal and doesn't mean you're doing illegal activities. But for some of Mossack Fonseca's clients were revealed to be prominent world leaders who may have been hiding assets for various illegal reasons.

That data was given to Süddeutsche Zeitung, a Munich-based center-left paper with the largest subscription base in Germany (basically Germany's version of The New York Times). Germany, and by extension Süddeutsche Zeitung, might have been chosen because the country has a premium on freedom of the press and is not a participant in the international spying consortium called "Five Eyes."

SZ also brought on board the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a group funded by American think-tanks, to help analyze the documents. According to SZ, the plan was laid out in places like Washington, Munich, London, and Lillehammer, Norway, to map out the research approach.

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Even using data processing algorithms, processing a volume of data that large isn't a simple undertaking. So far, 152 documents have been released to the public, and stories are still filtering in from SZ and their other partners, like The Guardian and Le Monde. Le Monde is reporting that political insiders with links to the National Front party have been setting up offshore accounts, for example, and The Guardian is talking about how Hong Kong is a center for funny money.

That doesn't mean everyone's happy with journalists holding the gate key. Even WikiLeaks has taken a critical position and called for the rest of the documents to be fully released. Making all of the Panama Papers public would be a watershed moment for data journalism, privacy, and for tax reform. Whether or not it develops into a more complex series of wider-reaching scandals that implicates the U.S. remains to be seen.