Panama Papers: journalists use new skills to break stories on offshore finance

by Derek Thorne
Friday, 15 April 2016 15:25 GMT

A journalist is seen next to a sign with a list of companies including the Mossack Fonseca law firm at the Arango Orillac Building in Panama City April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Journalists based in Africa who have taken part in the Thomson Reuters Foundation programme Wealth of Nations were involved in the global effort to report on the Panama Papers – the huge leak of information from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that dominated headlines across the world in early April.

The journalists used skills they gained from the programme to digest the often-complex information contained within the leak, and write engaging stories on it.

In Nigeria, Nicholas Ibekwe from Premium Times produced a series of stories looking at high-profile figures and how their names are linked to the ownership of offshore companies – which can be used to hide wealth and avoid taxes.

Nicholas’ stories have looked at high-profile figures including a retired army general and former defence minister, and a preacher with a following across the African continent – with more likely to follow.

Speaking about a workshop on reporting illicit finance which he attended in Kampala earlier in 2016, Nicholas said, “The workshop was of immense help. I found the part about offshore companies particularly helpful in unravelling the story.”  

Meanwhile in Mali, David Dembele, writing for MaliActu.net, reported on the appearance of a prominent local businessman in the data.

And in Botswana, journalists working at the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism looked at senior members of the Botswana judiciary and links to a number of offshore companies.

Beyond these investigations, many more participating journalists from countries such as Ghana, Mauritius, Kenya and Ethiopia have been writing stories and features about the Panama Papers and what it could mean for their countries.

The Panama Papers is a global investigation led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, together with the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung and more than 100 other media partners from across the world. It draws on data from a leak of 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca, which revealed information on over 200,000 offshore companies.

Offshore finance and illicit financial flows are some of the most complex topics a journalist can report on – and the Thomson Reuters Foundation has been building the capacity of African media to cover such topics for over four years. The current programme, Wealth of Nations, is funded by Norad and so far has worked with around 150 journalists from 34 African countries, who between them have produced over 170 stories and investigations on illicit finance, with more coming out regularly. 

Within the Wealth of Nations programme, the Foundation works with some of Africa's leading organisations promoting excellence in journalism and awareness of illicit financial flows: The African Centre for Media Excellence (Uganda), Media Development Center (Tunisia), New Narratives (Liberia), The Institute for the Advancement of Journalism (South Africa), and TrustAfrica.