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Book Review: The Offshore Scandal

The book starts slow, but evolves into a gripping portrayal of the inner workings of the corrupt, and the work that investigative journalists do to nail them, often risking their own lives

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This is probably the worst time to be a journalist. Journalists being murdered for their reporting is becoming almost as commonplace as it is shocking. The ones who remain are derided and delegitimised as sensationalists, even by people who should ideally know better. Cyber-hooligans amplify the noise by twisting news to the point where nobody knows what really happened.

So, it might come as a surprise that right in the middle of all this, came what is probably the greatest work of journalism ever. Known to the world as The Panama Papers, the leak of a trove of documents from a law-firm in Panama, Mossack Fonseca, resulted in a global collaboration of investigative journalists. Over 400 journalists working for 107 news organisations in 80 countries dug through 1.5 million documents, to uncover what is systematic tax evasion, and more importantly, blatant lying by the evaders when crossed.

A book, also by the same name, The Panama Papers chronicles this story of two dyed-in-the-wool investigative journalists Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier (no relation) working for German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung, and over 2 TB of leaked data, largely correspondence to and from the law firm, and how it evolved into the massive project that felled at least two world leaders, and implicated several others. The book starts slow, but evolves into a gripping portrayal of the inner workings of the corrupt, and the work that investigative journalists do to nail them, often risking their own lives.

Over 50 current and former world leaders were found to have money stashed in tax-havens.

People related to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as top functionaries in the Chinese Communist Party find their names in the list, as do leaders of several African, South American and Middle-East countries, Britain, Pakistan, Malaysia, the list just goes on.

Petro Poroshenko, the President of Ukraine, set up a shell company the exact same week the Russian troops invaded his country, and massacred about 1,000 of his troops as they were withdrawing. Iceland’s Prime Minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, is trapped during a live TV interview for lying about his ownership of shares in an offshore company that had bet against Iceland’s banks and contributed to leading the country to the brink of bankruptcy. He eventually had to quit.

The stories are fascinating, but what is more appalling is that both the above leaders (as well as several others caught by the leaks) came to power railing against public corruption. It’s startling to know how several of the players named were willing to lie point-blank about their interests, not knowing that the journalists had proof (thanks to the leaked documents) of their misdeeds. Were it not for such a leak, the world would have been blind to this egregious loot.

The Panama Papers achieved a lot. But just as important, is the fact that it plants a flag that journalists should be proud to look up to. A flag that proclaims that investigative journalism is not dead, and will never be.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Abraham C Mathews

The author is an Advocate, practicing in Delhi, and a Chartered Accountant

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