Eight months of hibernation in a “den”, working on a secret project and no weekends amid precautions for secrecy — that’s how the largest leak in whistleblower history was pulled off, exposing a widespread system of global tax evasion.
The Indian Express newspaper was part of the global media network coordinated by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for the leak that included more than 4.8 million emails, three million database files, and 2.1 million PDFs from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that specialises in creating shell companies in which its clients used to hide their assets.
Ritu Sarin, Executive Editor at the Express, shares with , how “Project Prometheus” came by and how they secretly worked for the expose that touched celebrities, athletes, business executives and world leaders. There are about 500 Indians who have stashed their wealth in offshore shell companies, according to the leak.
Excerpts from the email interview with Sarin.
Q. Tell us how it began.
A: Barely four months after the ICIJ-Indian Express investigation into HSBC accounts (Swiss bank leaks) got over, they called again from Washington informing us about a spanking new project. This was in July last year. The Indian Express was a “natural” partner for the ICIJ since we have twice before collaborated with them on a major project (in 2013 and 2015) and since I have been a ICIJ member for over a decade now.
So in July, the agreement was signed, which stipulated the embargo guidelines, credits for ICIJ and Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper which got the leaks and so on — and “Project Prometheus” was rolling.
Q: Did you always believe it was going to be this big?
A: I never had any doubt that The Indian Express would back me all the way. For, which other newspaper would invest in a team of editors working for eight months on a single story? Everyone was excited from the Day One and the team was formed in consultation with the editors.
All the precautions of system security and fire walls were taken by ICIJ and despite the fact that we have an open office plan, nobody heard the words Mossack Fonseca spoken these eight months. I was confident there would be no leak, so while others in the office may have known something expansive was in the works, nobody knew what precisely.
Q. How did you manage secrecy?
A: We got systems installed in a “den” in one side of the office and took simple precautions of not leaving papers around; being careful on the phone and so on. The ICIJ had inbuilt fire walls like password protected access to the “Forumn” where an authenticator had to be used for entry and all email communication was done on an encrypted service. The ICIJ also repeatedly issued guidelines and even asked us to report any theft of laptops or phones. Fortunately, we pulled it off.
Q. Is this the biggest scoop of your journalistic career?
A: I’m hoping the biggest is yet to come. In terms of scope of the investigation and the space given day after day (almost six pages on Day 1), it may be the biggest but I have earlier done some important stories too: the Zail Singh interview for Sunday magazine and Tata tapes and the troop movement story for The Indian Express. But as I said, I hope the best is round the bend.
Q. How did the pool of reporters around the globe coordinate?
A: In September, around 100 reporters, working on “Project Prometheus”, along with the entire ICIJ staff and editors of Suddeutsch Zeitung met for a two-day brainstorming session in Munich. I represented The Indian Express. There were some training sessions and presentations from reporting teams on early finds.
It was a rare exchange of ideas and a sort of undercover meeting of investigative reporters from around the world. The rest of the exchanges were done on the “forum” where files and data were fed and thematic as well as regional groups created. There was, for instance, a separate group working on Iceland; even one for art dealers who were Mossack Fonseca clients and so on.
Q: Eight months of reading into data, decoding it, analyzing it. Must have been boring?
A: It has been an exhausting exercise. Meant working weekends, long hours before the machine, eight months of hibernation.
Q: Did you and the Express have editorial control on the Panama stories?
A: Of course, we had complete editorial control. All project members were free to pick anything from the millions of files. Just before publication date, ICIJ asked for rough news-lists from country leaders.
Q: Did all the journalists involved in the project have access to all the data?
A: Everyone had the same access to the entire data.
Q Why not release all the data the way Wikileaks did it? Questions are being raised if it was a selected expose as few names from the West or America has been named so far?
A: Just like they did for the earlier BVI (British Virgin Island) investigation, the ICIJ will be releasing some interactive data –not the documents — but a month after project launch. It is ICIJ policy not to make all documents public.
Q. Anything interesting you can recall happened during the course of your investigation?
A: The three of us (P. Vaidyanathan Iyer, National Affairs Editor, Jay Mazoomdaar, Associate Editor and myself), evidently, seemed least disappointed when India lost the T20 semi finals. The final was on April 3 and Project Prometheus was to go to print the same night!