“Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data?”
-John Doe (as reported in The Washington Post)[i]
How would you respond to a message like this? A message like this from someone identifying him or herself as John Doe would probably spark some curiosity, as well as confusion. It certainly peaked the curiosity Bastian Obermayer when he received this message through an encrypted chat in late 2014.
Obermayer, a reporter with the German newspaper Suddeutche Zeitung, responded, “Who are you?” John Doe replied, “I’m nobody. Just a concerned citizen.”[ii]
This exchange began the transfer of 11.5 million documents and the year-long investigation involving more than 370 journalists from around 100 news organizations across more than 70 countries, internally known as Project Prometheus. Or, as we now know it, The Panama Papers.[iii]
The Panama Papers encompass a full 2.6 terabytes of data—about 2,000 times larger than WikiLeaks in 2010—making this the biggest leak in history. The Panama Papers cover 40 years’ worth of internal documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, whose specialty seems to be the creation of shell companies all over the world that many of its clients have used to hide secret assets.[iv]
The initial news reports about The Panama Papers, published around the world on Sunday, April 3, 2016, have already led to the Icelandic Prime Minister’s resignation and implications against dozens of heads of state, politicians and celebrities from around the world, including King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Chinese President Xi’s close family, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s father, and close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.[v]
The information from The Panama Papers, and the consequences to those named within them, will continue to be reported on for some time as journalists comb through the leaked data. However, the actual information uncovered in The Panama Papers and its implications are not the subject of this blog. Rather, what I will examine here is how such a large and diverse group of reporters from around the world tackled this investigation and collaborated together to report on the largest leak in history.
How did hundreds of journalists from news organizations from across the globe, in a normally competitive industry, come together for the biggest media collaboration in history? It was all strategically planned. Let’s start at the beginning…
It began with the initial exchange between John Doe and Obermayer via encrypted message. Obermayer asked, “How much data are we talking about?” John Doe responded, “More than you have ever seen.”[vi]
The source then sent Obermayer a small amount of the data, which he reviewed with his colleague, Frederik Obermaier. “When we had received about 100 gigabyte[s] [of] material, we realized that there are a lot of big stories in there,” Obermayer explained in a film made about the investigation by the German broadcaster NDR. “When it reached more than one terabyte, we realized that there are really many big stories in there.”[vii]
Obermaier continued, “We got even more excited and our eyes started to sparkle, when we saw that there are traces, not only one head of state, but to dozens of heads of state. That this is a project with stories leading to every continent.”
Obermayer and Obermaier realized the magnitude of this undertaking, one that no journalist could take on alone. They needed a plan as to how to mine through and accurately report on such complex and significant information. And so their newspaper, Sudduetsche Zeitung, asked the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for help.
The ICIJ, a project launched by the Center for Public Integrity, is a network of more than 190 investigative journalist from more than 65 countries who work on in-depth investigations around issues of corruption, accountability of power, and cross-border crimes.[viii] The ICIJ, staffed by a 12-person team, took up the task of bringing together journalists from around the world for Project Prometheus.
ICIJ did not want to simply release the data in full to the public, but rather have reporters write those stories that were of public interest. “We are an investigative journalism organization and, as such, we report on stories that are in the public interest,” Marina Walker, Deputy Director of ICIJ, explained in an FAQ document released after the story was released globally. “[The stories] we are pursuing serve the public interest by bringing accountability to the offshore industry—an industry that has operated in the shadows. Other parts of the data are private in nature and of no interest to the public. ICIJ will not release personal data en masse but will continue to mine the full data with its media partners.”[ix]
“We’re not WikiLeaks,” Gerard Ryle, Director of ICIJ, reiterated. “We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly.”[x]
ICIJ’s goal was to have journalists who worked and understood the context of the places and people being mentioned in the documents, and who could then report on stories in the public interest of the regions in which they served.
“ICIJ contacted us and asked whether we were interested in being part of a big project,” Hamadou Tidiane Sy, Chief Editor of Ouestaf in Senegal, said. “The problems [ICIJ] are working on are also problems in Africa. We got the knowledge and understanding of the West Africa context, so we thought, well, let’s do it.”[xi]
Another example is Jóhannes Kr. Kristjánsson, the Icelandic reporter who investigated the nearly 600 Icelanders mentioned in the documents, including the Prime Minister. “The data tells the story of what happened behind the curtain,” he explained.[xii]
Over the next year, ICIJ brought together the team of more than 370 journalists from about 100 news organizations in more than 70 countries to work on The Panama Papers. As journalists were brought into the project, ICIJ created an online search engine, one that could be accessed only through an encrypted email and a two-layered password authentication process, for journalists to go through the data.[xiii]
“We created a virtual newsroom, which is called the Global IHub—and is open source but is tailored to our needs,” described Walker. “And it is basically like a social media wall…it is like a Facebook wall or the Facebook of investigative journalism. Only that it is secure and only the people working on our project are allowed in this space.”[xiv]
The search engine also allowed reporters to chat with one another and share information securely. “If you wanted to look into the Brazilian documents, you could find a Brazilian reporter,” said Ryle. “You could see who was awake and working and communicate openly. We encouraged everyone to tell everyone what they were doing.”[xv]
While this was happening, Obermayer continued to receive small amounts of data over time, eventually adding up to 2.6 terabytes, directly from the anonymous source and shared it with ICIJ. Obermayer repeatedly try to convince John Doe to reveal his identity, but, despite Obermayer’s promises of secrecy, John Doe was too afraid for his safety to come forward. “Had some trouble sleeping tonight,” John Doe once told Obermayer. “I was thinking about how people will react to these revelations. It’s very likely that some of the [Mossack Fonseca’s] clients will try to find me. And some of those clients have intelligence agencies.”[xvi]
And so Obermayer communicated with John Doe through of encrypted channels that frequently changed and established protocols to confirm who was on the other end of the line every time they connected. He explained that one protocol was a set question and answer, such as, “I’d say ‘is it sunny?’ You’d say ‘the moon is raining’ or whatever nonsense, and then both of us can verify it’s still the other person on the device.” Obermayer also destroyed his laptop’s hard drive and phone as an additional precaution before the story was released. [xvii]
For more than a year, this group of journalists looked through the relevant data for their region and shared what they found through the Global IHub. “We need[ed] months of research and fact-checking, of really digging into this more than 8 million files in order to make sense — in order to find those stories of public interest that are going to make an impact on society,” Walker explained.[xviii]
The full group met in person only a few times in 2015, in different locations around the world. All of the reporters working on the project had to agree to share information openly with one another and not to publish anything ahead of the release date set by ICIJ. ICIJ also advised these journalists to make sure that their work was kept secret and secure. “We told people, ‘Don’t leave your computer open. Don’t open [WiFi] in a cafeteria,” Ryle explained. “And if you ever lose your phone, tell us.”[xix]
More than a year later, it was time for Project Prometheus to move to the next stage — releasing the story. Despite the high number of people working on The Panama Papers, there were only minor rumblings about the story before its release. Several reporters went to Mossack Fonseca for comment four weeks prior to the story’s release.[xx] And, when asked for comment, Russian officials denounced ICIJ a week prior to the release.[xxi]
But on Sunday, April 3, 2016, The Panama Papers stories hit newsstands around the world, exposing what lay behind the curtain of this shadow world, exactly as planned.
The Panama Papers investigation and story release is powerful example of what can happen when organizations strategically plan communication.
Suddeutche Zeitung understood how massive and complicated this project was going to be and asked for help from those experienced in handling projects of this magnitude. ICIJ then strategically planned — from start to finish — how they would approach the project based on what they wanted to achieve. The goal was to shine a light on Mossack Fonseca and the larger offshore industry in a global way by responsibly harnessing the power of cooperative journalism. ICIJ’s strategy was to then create a global media collaboration that would responsibly report on those stories of public interest. And then ICIJ invited media partners from around the world to the project, created a system to investigate and openly communicate with one another about each other’s findings, and coordinated a release of stories between normally competing journalists and media outlets. And the results were waves of stories with international implications and a new public attention on this issue.
By strategically planning how they would tell this story, Suddeutche Zeitung, ICIJ, and the various journalists and media partners not only achieved their goal, but also bolstered their reputations and that of the journalism industry itself. And by responsibly reporting the story behind the curtain, these journalists may very well end up changing the world order as we know it.
This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.