Five years on, the Panama Papers still demonstrate the importance of whistleblowers

by Laura Peterson, Senior Research Advisor

Published on March 12, 2021

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Five years on, the Panama Papers still demonstrate the importance of whistleblowers

Next month marks the five-year anniversary of the release of the Panama Papers, which unleashed a scandal that spanned the globe and implicated public figures ranging from Vladimir Putin to the king of Saudi Arabia. The scandal, which continues to produce revelations today, demonstrates not only the global nature of fraud but the potentially world-changing impact of a single whistleblower.

The Panama Papers refer to more than 11 million emails, bank statements and other documents taken from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm with offices around the world whose stock in trade was creating offshore companies, bank accounts, and other tax-free financial vehicles in which the global elite hid their wealth.

The documents were provided by a whistleblower who remains anonymous to this day but went by the moniker John Doe in his communications with the German newspaper reporters who first received the documents. Those reporters contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a nonprofit organization in Washington D.C. that facilitates collaboration between journalists around the world in tackling multinational issues like smuggling and organized crime.

ICIJ launched an investigation that utilized 350 journalists in 80 countries to produce dozens of stories published in global news outlets and on the ICIJ website. The scope and reach of the investigation resulted in an unusual degree of real-world impact. Examples include:

  • Restitution of $1.2 billion in tax revenue to 23 national governments;
  • The resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who owned a shell company in the British Virgin Islands that held nearly $4 million in bonds from Icelandic banks;
  • Pakistan’s dismissal of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose children owned several shell companies created by Mossack Fonseca;
  • New anti-corruption laws and policies in dozens of countries;
  • Criminal charges filed by the U.S. Justice Department against four Mossack Fonseca associates on charges including wire fraud, tax fraud, and money laundering.

None of these reforms would have happened without a whistleblower. In a statement to ICIJ, John Doe said he took action because he wanted Mossack Fonseca to answer for its crimes, but also to draw attention to the important role that whistleblowers play in exposing corruption and the global lack of whistleblower protections.

“I have watched as one after another, whistleblowers and activists in the United States and Europe have had their lives destroyed by the circumstances they find themselves in after shining a light on obvious wrongdoing,” he wrote, naming former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, UBS banker Bradley Birkenfeld, and PWC auditor Antoine Deltour as examples.

“Legitimate whistleblowers who expose unquestionable wrongdoing, whether insiders or outsiders, deserve immunity from government retribution, full stop. Until governments codify legal protections for whistleblowers into law, enforcement agencies will simply have to depend on their own resources or ongoing global media coverage for documents.”

The National Whistleblower Center agrees. That’s why we have a full legislative agenda on strengthening and protecting U.S. whistleblower laws at the local, state and federal level. In addition, NWC is working with NGOs, European lawmakers and other partners to strengthen whistleblower laws in the European Union. This includes consulting with EU governments on how to implement the Whistleblowing Directive passed by the European Parliament in 2019.

As we note the anniversary of the Panama Papers, it’s important to remember and celebrate the whistleblower who made them possible.

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