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All that you wanted to know about Panama Papers

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On April 7, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden tweeted: “The next 24 hours could change Britain”. He also posted a link to an article from The Guardian which carried a news report “David Cameron admits he profited from father’s offshore fund”. A host of world leaders are in the dock since the release of Panama Papers. A political crisis has erupted in Iceland too, where protesters are demanding the ouster of PM Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson after his name appeared in the leaked papers.

In what is being termed as one of the biggest leak of confidential documents globally, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) on April 3 started the release of documents which exposed how rich and powerful people around the world exploit secret offshore tax havens.

According to the information on its website, ICIJ is a global network of more than 190 investigative journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories.

The documents released by ICIJ belong to one of the biggest offshore law firm based out of Panama, Mossack Fonseca. According to available information, the data was leaked to a German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung by an anonymous source, which they later shared with ICIJ. The size of the data obtained by ICIJ is 2.6 terabyte (600 DVDs) and has 11.5 million files concerning around 214,488 offshore companies run by about 14000 people.

Out of the total 11.5 million files, so far (till April 8) only 186 files have been released. The documents released so far have revealed names of political leaders who have used offshore tax havens to hide their money. Close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistan’s PM Nawaz Sharif, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, Son of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and former interim PM of Iraq Ayad Allawi are some of the people whose names have cropped up in the Panama Papers.

A controversy, however, has erupted post the expose as there have been allegations from some quarters that the release of Panama Papers does not include any American names. The Russian government has said that the Panama Papers were released to target President Vladimir Putin. During a TV discussion on Russia Today involving WikiLeaks spokesperson Kristinn Hrafnsson it was also pointed out that ICIJ, interestingly, “was funded by Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment think tank, the Rockefellers and George Soros”. A news report on the same media outlet, quoting former whistleblowers from CIA and MI5, questioned the motive of the ‘Western Media’ in portraying President Putin as the face of Panama Papers leak.

Wikileaks has also called for the simultaneous release of all 11.5 million files and have raised doubts about the selective release of documents. According to the whistleblowing group, the Panama Papers should be available to general public on a platform so that everybody can search the data and not just a group of journalists.

There is also debate on the real impact of this release. We have had Offshore leaks, Luxemburg Leaks, Swiss Leaks in the past but those are forgotten now. Everybody got away. Moreover, Panama is not the only tax haven, there are others like Cayman Island, Cyprus, British Virgin Islands among others. More than anything, the United States of America is the new emerging tax haven for people wanting to hide their money.

A January 27, 2016 news report in the Bloomberg stated:

“After years of lambasting other countries for helping rich Americans hide their money offshore, the U.S. is emerging as a leading tax and secrecy haven for rich foreigners. By resisting new global disclosure standards, the U.S. is creating a hot new market, becoming the go-to place to stash foreign wealth. Everyone from London lawyers to Swiss trust companies is getting in on the act, helping the world’s rich move accounts from places like the Bahamas and the British Virgin Islands to Nevada, Wyoming, and South Dakota.”

An article is US digital platform Salon states:

“What we have not yet seen is any U.S. individual implicated in the leak, which seems unlikely given our stable of international wealth. The editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper which first received the documents, promises there will be more to come. But one reason why Americans haven’t yet been implicated is that they already have a perfectly good place for their tax avoidance schemes: right here in the United States.”

So will the latest release have any impact on the ground? As of now, it seems that it will impact countries that are politically fragile (Ukraine, Pakistan), will result in loss of face for ruling dispensation (Iceland, United Kingdom), and will have negligible or little impact in counties like Russia and China. Also, the move to regulate and monitor offshore tax havens have been going on since a long time and the latest leak will no doubt give more fillip to these international efforts.

There are many more files that will be released in the coming days but to give more credibility to the entire process and address the allegations of Western conspiracy, it makes sense for an organization like Wikileaks to obtain the entire cache of 11.5 million files and publish it on their platform.