Football Leaks and Panama Papers: Two Tales of Great Journalism

In recent years, two major data leaks have rocked the world of journalism. Mar Cabra of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and Stefan Candea of Investigative European Collaborations (IEC) talk about the Panama Papers and Football leaks and the importance of collaboration when working with big data leaks. Adam Thomas, director of the European Journalism Centre, moderates the panel.
The Panama Papers just had their first birthday. On April 3rd 2016, the Papers were published and shook the world. The scale of the leak was enormous: 2,6 Terabytes of data were offered by an anonymous source to Bastian Obermayer of the German newspaper SĂĽddeutsche Zeitung. He asked ICIJ for help, who then shared the data with more than 370 journalists of 107 media organisations in 80 countries. They analysed the documents, which belonged to the Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca. The firm has more than 40 offices all over the world, which means that the data in the Panama Papers has implications for many, many countries.
As a rule, ICIJ worked with one or two media organisations per country to keep the data exclusive. In Europe, they were mostly big organisations, but in other parts of the world, smaller local organisations were involved as well. In some countries, ICIJ worked with one print and one television organisation, so that the stories could be told not only through words but also through visual means. In order to make the data more accessible, ICIJ developed a virtual newsroom called iHub on which journalists from all over the world could discuss their progress. Moreover, they used radical sharing methodology to create a document search platform to make it easier for journalists to find relevant data.
The impact of the Panama Papers has been incredible. The data helped prove things that had been talked about without evidence because the offshore world is opaque. As a result of the stories told based on the Panama Papers, the Icelandic Prime Minister was forced to resign, and a minister in Spain resigned as well. There are at least 150 investigations still going on in 79 countries.
Cabra emphasises that electronic leaks are the new normal, and that global collaboration is the only way to deal with these leaks. Furthermore, data journalism is here to stay and whistle-blowers who provide journalists with data should be better protected and facilitated.
At the end of 2015, Stefan Candea was discussing the possibility of starting a European network for investigative journalism with journalists at the German newspaper Der Spiegel. This small project ultimately led to Football Leaks, a data leak of about 2 Terabyte with e-mails, documents, WhatsApp conversations, videos and more that revealed financial transactions in the world of European professional football.
To publish the data, EIC worked together with 12 European media organisations and over 60 journalists reporting in 13 languages. All data was shared with all partners; they were free in how to use them. To facilitate collaboration, EIC made us of a platform called Sandstorm, which combines existing platforms and allows for journalists to share files in real-time. Every media partner produced their own articles based on the data and then put them on the platform, usually with the most important information attached in bullet points in English. Furthermore, the journalists worked with annotations in the documents so that anyone who worked with a document could see how it had been useful for previous visitors. This created an extra layer of information. Football Leaks is thus a puzzle put together by different journalists, for different audiences and in different languages. Because of this, there is no central editor in chief.
As for the publication and the production of the stories, EIC ran into a number of difficulties. First, there was a huge debate on how to publish the data and in what language. Then, when publishing, the EIC had to deal with some legal issues. In several countries, journalists were faced with an injunction. Each partner decided on how to deal with these injunctions differently. The Spanish newspaper El Mundo, for example, ignored the injunctions and continued publishing. Lastly, there was a great deal of discussion within the network about embargoes and publication dates. It was difficult to coordinate these because of the many different countries and languages the stories were published in.
In the end, however, the EIC and its partners came out of Football Leaks as a strong network of investigative journalists. They meet every week for a meeting online, and every few months in one of the partners’ home countries. Furthermore, the collaboration has opened doors to a whole array of new collaborations, also ones on a smaller scale. According to Candea, a huge infrastructure is not always necessary for a good collaboration. A smaller collaboration based on a specific topic, for example, might work just as well as a general, global network.

By Aster Dieleman