Collaboration and Trust Key to Reporting on the Panama Papers


Bastian Obermayer’s life changed a few years ago when he received more than 11 million documents from an anonymous source. The collection of documents would later be known as The Panama Papers.

Obermayer, deputy head of the investigative unit of the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung, took attendees at the 2018 ACFE Fraud Conference Europe through the story of how more than 200 investigative journalists in 70 countries helped wade through the 2.6 TB of data he was given. In his address to the hundreds of fraud fighters in attendance, Obermayer stressed not only how large the undertaking was, but how important it was for the journalists to work together.

In order to use the documents to their fullest potential, Obermayer had to go against journalistic instinct and share his exclusive scoop. He said that although he and his team at Süddeutsche Zeitung wanted to be able to break the story, they realized that having different sets of eyes on the data could bring in many different perspectives. Those different perspectives could spot the names of important movers and shakers in other countries and industries that Obermayer and his small team might not otherwise recognize as a story. “In the end we had 5,000 different [potential] stories and I would have found maybe 100,” he said. “That would have been a shame if we had kept it to ourselves and not let other people in.”

One of the big hurdles with involving so many journalists was making sure everyone was on the same page. Obermayer said the journalists they shared the data with agreed to four main rules:

  1. Shut up and encrypt. They did not communicate openly about the project, either in person or online. The risks were too great if they were overheard or hacked.
  2. They shared everything they found with each other. No one could keep the best story for themselves to publish weeks later.
  3. They all would publish on the same date and time. This was seen as one of the most important rules so you knew you would not get scooped by another journalist.
  4. They were nice and polite to each other. Obermayer said this rule was the one most deviated from at times.

“The big surprise was it actually worked. The whole thing worked,” said Obermayer. “That was because we had established trust.” Over more than a year of digging and sifting, on April 3, 2016, the journalists involved in the projects were able to publish numerous pieces in different media outlets that exposed the millions of tax-shelter companies registered through the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. Obermayer won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting.