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Following the money trail

 Arun Srivastava |  2016-12-18 21:12:48.0  |  0

Following the money trail

The Panama Papers is a remarkable work of investigative journalism at the centre of which lies a huge data of internal communications between Panama–based law firm Mossack Fonseca which specialises in the incorporation of business firms in tax havens and its over two lakh clients over a period of 40 years. It was a sheer amount of work, and a risky one at that, for the two ordinary correspondents, who finally go on to author the book under review, to read the entire data and cull stories, which involved both the high and mighty and also the dreaded from around the world. But the most difficult task that they had on hand was to make sure that their ultimate work from the data mountain and the maze of firms and their directors is not only easy to read but also breaks as a major news in the international press. In other words, they had to ensure their work does not fall with a thud and draws a yawn from their readers. The book is a brilliant example how journalistic copies are still the best way to put across complex subjects and complicated information. Spread over 30 chapters, this 350–page book has each chapter of almost the same word–length as in a standard big write–up in a newspaper. The sentences are short and simple but infomation–rich and devoid of build–up. The story progresses with all self doubts answered at their first appearance and the remarkable thing about the book and the investigation into the data mountain is that individual stories are easy to read and understand and at the same time they break as major revelations in nearly 40 countries, where heads of state among others had to face difficult times hiding their links with entities in tax havens amid resignation demands.

The inequality of wealth among the citizens of a country is stark at the first glance anywhere in the world, and some have it in absurd proportions. Political heads of states and ministers, dictators, top company executives, mafia dons earn millions of dollars amazingly fast and mostly in inexplicable ways. But how such money and the ways in which it has been earned do not catch the attention of investigators and bank officials is a matter of great surprise. Undoubtedly, they are hand in glove when frauds and tax evasion of enormous proportions are taking place. As per different estimates, Russian president Vladamir Putin's fortune is estimated to be between $40 billion and $200 billion. How he made so much of money and how he managed to conceal it from the probing eyes of public and media is a mystery. The Panama Papers has a chapter on this and gives some insights. The book has similar chapters on other leading figures who have taken the Panama route to conceal their riches.

An unidentified source passes on crucial data of business dealings of over 40 years of Panama–based law firm Mossack Fonseca to Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier who are investigative journalists based in Munich, Germany, and work with the Suddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. The data are email communications between Mossack Fonseca and its clients of high net worth individuals. But the data is simply too huge to make sense – something like more than a million emails and even more than that of other papers related to the incorporation of different shell companies. Mossack Fonseca is a law firm helps them open shell companies and bank accounts in tax havens such as British Virgin Islands, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, Panama, Seychelles and Samoa helps them transfer millions of dollars to the bank accounts while keeping the identity of its real clients completely under wraps. Mossack Fonseca itself has over 200 associate companies and is present in 30 countries including China where it has nine branches and USA. Obermaier brothers as the two authors of this book are famously known because of their joint investigative stories in the past unravel in their book The Panama Papers the different layers of secrecy that the law firm, Mossack Fonseca, employs to facilitate legal immunity to big–time tax evaders, dictators and greedy politicians who rob billions from their country and arms dealers and mafia dons, who are responsible for some of the worst crimes against humanity and make money through illegal enterprises.

The book is based on the research of over 2.6 terabytes of data and includes information about over 210,000 companies in 21 offshore jurisdictions.

As the data involves the rich and powerful from every part of the world and is impossibly huge to analyse and dig out journalistic stories, Suddeutsche Zeitung and the Obermaier brothers decide to take on board Washington–based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in its task to investigate the data in a country–specific manner. The data is shared with ICIJ and more than 370 journalists worked on the Panama Papers, a 12 month investigation that covered almost 80 countries and involved more than 100 media organisations. The leak contains more than 11.5 million internal files of the company. The data shows that Mossack Fonseca worked with more than 14,000 banks, law firms, company incorporators and other middlemen to set up companies, foundations and trusts for customers. The book concludes with an Epilogue where the authors give an account of what happens immediately before and after the publication of their investigation. 

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Arun Srivastava

Arun Srivastava

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