Panama Papers and the need to thank our Brave Journalists

The world on Monday woke up to what could easily be called the news of our time. It was not another terror attack that shooks a certain part of the world cutting across borders or that news of economic meltdown which makes elite bite their nails, it was a leak bigger than that of Wikileaks that took world by storm. The sheer numbers are massive, more massive is their reach and the people they belong too. The leak unlike Wikileaks doesn’t revolve around United States anymore, it is engulfing the whole of world. It in a way unites the high and mighty in their dirty games. It strips the mask from the elite who boast repeatedly of integrity and other high terms.

Panama Papers are but huge leak of confidential documents which reveal how the reach and powerful use tax havens to hide their taxes. At the heart of all this storm is a Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca with its 11.5 million confidential documents comprising detailed information about 214,000 offshore companies. It comprises data of about 2.6 terabytes which was initially supplied to a German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in August 2015 and also to US based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The amount of data they contained and its significance was so huge that it was distributed and analyzed by around 400 journalists at 107 media organizations across 80 countries. And after all this months it is still not all that’s leaked is published or studied but a fraction of it, and that fraction alone had shook the world we inhabit. It names around 12 current or former head of the states, and around 60 people who are close relatives of other heads. It talks about companies that provide arms to Syrian militants and others. From Vladimir Putin to Iceland Prime Minister to Pakistan PM, it links them all to shady deals and shell companies sniffing money worth more than GDP of most countries. Add to it, Mossack Fonseca whose documents all these are is only the fourth largest of all such firms; there are three more who are bigger than it. Imagine the storm and height of revelations they would make if they get leaked.

You know how you buy goods from big companies, from malls, of different brands; The companies you know make goods that you purchase, the things that you consume. In a similar manner, companies like Mossack Fonseca produce companies, they establish the establishments! It sounds stupid and lame but that is what they do — it’s a company that produces companies. And this companies have so many layers of secrecy that makes it almost impossible to know who the beneficial owner of them is. Now beneficial owner is not the one who owns the companies on any paper or the one who attends board meetings but the one who benefits out of this shell companies, the who makes profit. One shell company is owned by another shell company and that by another and that by another. This continues till top whose owner is anonymous, whose details are all but top secret, all until a leak as this one comes along. And then there is this trivial case of how this money is used or precisely for what. It includes drug, human trafficking, wars, to topple governments or just plain vacation, it is anything but paying taxes and contributing to nation building whose drums this elite hot-shots beat in every social gathering. So next time when some big political leader or celebrity is talking big things, things that are quite sweet to your ears, pause a bit, take a deep breathe, be a little cynical and ask that basic question — Are they making fool of me? Believe me or not, but they are most of the times.
The control of information is something the elite always does, particularly in a despotic form of government. Information, knowledge, is power. If you can control information, you can control people. — Tom Clancy
The real wealth today is not dollars you have stashed away or materials you own but the information you possess, the piece of data that could break and make governments, that bit of information which stirs the world around. We all loathe for it. Breaking News stories or ‘exclusive’ news is but information that has power to send ripples around. And journalists of today go to extreme heights to gain that piece of information. Press freedom in many countries including India is not at its best. Journalists are the least appreciated lot amongst us. The moment a story breaks out is also the moment when the journalists who broke that story are shamed and abused online. If that’s not enough, they are asked to leave the place of news, they are beaten, arrested on stupid charges (if you consider arrest on Whatsapp text stupid). My refernce here is to what is happening in Bastar, Chattisgarh, India. If you have still not read about them then I suggest you go through The Quint, The Wire, Outlook. The references I gave you just now aren’t honey-picked but were the results of simple Google search! Then there are cases where a journalist from one organization fight over the others over myriad issues which concerns to anything but profession. One slings mud at the other, the other calls his show the best and so on. And at this hour of crisis comes this story of Panama Papers where journalists from across the world constituting different nations who don’t even speak a common tongue have united to unearth what is the biggest leak until today of our times. In that sense too this is huge and, if we learn the significance and path they toiled together to uncover and analyze huge data chunk as this one, we could break many important stories which we find hard to even touch today.

In India alone there are issues that are treated like taboos today. There are issues on which we have already formed our opinions before we discussed or scavenged it for truth. Naxal issue is one such that plagues us and the people in forests. Recently a Manipur cop confessed to shooting unarmed civilian and also about how shootings are carried out to please their political masters but was the story covered? The story went uncovered by most media outlets. Now its all but forgotten. We in India need consortium like ICIJ to invest ample amount of time in one issue at a time and to go into the root of it to uncover the big picture. We have so many issues like Vyapam, Naxalism, police encounters etc. which need a thorough investigation. Investigative journalism is all but dead in India. And no, doing a sting on someone doesn’t really amount to that courageous part of journalism. Our journalists these days are going behind people or the news-makers as they call them when instead they should have been behind the stories. Police encounters happen in almost every state but when you follow just the people behind them, you end up concentrating only on Gujarat, the state Prime Minister of India hails from.

Edward Snowden time and again said why he is not important but the story or papers he is talking about are but sadly, have we today reached anywhere near conclusion to address the issues he raised long back? Few journalists across the globe are doing their part or more than what they are supposed to, at times risking their own lives. And for what? To bring the stories that matter us, that affect our lives. The money Panama Papers talk about is not the money of the elite alone but is part of us too. The taxes we pay and the taxes they hide and stash abroad are all interrelated. The politicians who rule us are using the money we pay as tax but are hiding the their share of taxes. And where are they spending it all? On wars and drugs and human trafficking and more. This is serious and should make us all worried.

It’s time to thank our journalists for the work they are doing, for the risks they are taking to ask those uncomfortable questions, for the heights they are going to unmask the truths about the world we live in. If information is the king of our times, journalists are foot soldiers of that empire and we need to give them their due respect. At times our world is that of Truman Show and journalists help us bust that bubble of falseness to introduce us to the hard reality of the world we live in. The Indian Express which was part of journalists across the world who invested their time and broke this story has a byline with their newspaper, “Journalism of Courage”, which is so true about all such episodes of press time-line when people go to extreme lengths to bring us such hard truths of our world.

Thanks to all those journalists who travel extreme heights to bring us that piece of news and also to those who fight for press freedom. Thanks also for reading so far. Share to spread the word!

P.S. Journalists should realize that they belong to Journalism first and then to the organizations they work for like Ravish Kumar said last night. That’s when they will unite to break stories that matter and not fight over who breaks it first which ends up serving viewers/readers the unbaked half stories.

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