Panama Papers: the Indian journalists behind it

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 11/04/2016
An Indian Express team was among the 250 journalists in the gigantic, global investigation which has begun to topple presidents and prime ministers.
NUPUR BASU gets a peek into how they did it

(Left to Right) P. Vaidyanathan Iyer, National Affairs Editor; RituSarin, Executive Editor (News & Investigation); and Jay Mazoomdaar, Associate Editor. Pix credit Indian Express


It is being dubbed as the mother of all data journalism projects this century. From car tyre makers to heads of states, all have come under the radar. The Panama Papers, codenamed internally as Project Prometheus, was an investigation initiated by the Washington based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Two hundred and fifty journalists  from over 70 countries came on board to jointly work on what could be described as the biggest digital data dump to trace black money stashed in offshore shell accounts. It involved sifting through leaked documents of an international law firm based in Panama, Mossack Fonseca. The scale of the data dumped was mindboggling - 4.8 million e-mails, 2.1 million PDFs that ranged over a 38 year time frame – from 1977 to December 2015.

Three senior journalists in India from the Indian Express who were part of the exclusive club of 250 journalists worked 24x7 for over eight months assessing and sifting through the data on special hush mail accounts on secured servers and committed to a secrecy protocol. In an exclusive interview given to The Hoot, Ritu Sarin, Executive Editor (News and Investigations) who was the lead investigator in the Panama Papers probe and P. Vaidyanathan Iyer, National Affairs Editor, gave us a peek into the behind-the-scenes atmospherics of an investigation that is threatening to topple presidents and prime ministers across the globe. (Iceland Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was the first casualty as he had to step down following protests. UK Prime Minister David Cameron has been fighting hard to stay in office this week following revelations of his father’s offshore accounts).

“Our codename for the project was Project P, short for Project Prometheus . We were given a separate cell in the office and everyone knew we were on some project but no one knew what exactly it was, such was the secrecy maintained that over this eight month period nobody knew the word Mossack Fonseca even within our own organisation, ” Sarin told The Hoot.

A long time member of ICIJ (you have to be invited by them to be a member) with a four-decade long track record of doing investigative stories in India, Sarin was handpicked by ICIJ for the investigation. She had previously broken the story on the HSBC-Swiss bank accounts of Indians and prior to that, in 2013, on the British Virgin Island accounts. As for the Indian Express, which  has built a reputation as a flagbearer of investigative stories, it was the chosen newspaper from India.

“This was my third project with the ICIJ which does cross border investigations on a collaborative model.  The Indian Express and ICIJ had to sign a formal agreement which included issues of credit, embargoes, fact checks and legal issues,” Sarin said. Media houses collaborating from across the globe had to be committed to this agreement.

Sarin’s next task was to pick her team in the Express that would work with her on the investigation. “We were looking for people with sheer doggedness and tenacity and also someone who would be able to give us time, ”she said. P. Vaidyanathan Iyer and Jay Mazoomdaar , Associate Editor, were the two journalists who came on board. The investigation was to last for over 240 days and the three journalists worked night and day on weekdays and weekends.

“In the Indian Express team, work was divided depending first on who " found" what and on a more professional level, on areas of specialization of team members. For instance, if I had reported earlier on the Niira Radia interception story, I did that for the Panama papers package. Also P Vaidyanathan Iyer who was our business editor earlier was the obvious pick for doing the number crunching and RBI policy stories.... Work load was split exactly three ways...” explains Sarin.

Team Panama in the Indian Express had 25 journalists in all - three from Delhi and the remaining 22 from the state bureaus. However only the Delhi trio were privy to the details of the actual investigations . The state bureau journalists were told to track the addresses whose names were appearing in their region and get back with information.

 It was a huge challenge for the team to prevent leaks. And the processes followed to safeguard the investigation from getting out were rigorous. “ICIJ had given us inbuilt security, they had set up a forum with an elaborate password, a Google authenticator was given, a secure search engine and all our communication was on hush mail, so lots of firewalls. And encrypted mail was used internally for communicating even within the Express. It was an absolutely paperless operation. Pen drives were the only mode of carrying and storing the stories that ICIJ was feeding the machines every month. Logs would change every month,’ said Sarin.

Iyer, whose understanding of economic and financial matters made him a natural choice for selection in Team Panama Papers, told the Hoot “It was my first such investigation in the paper. The data dump was very huge.There were more than 36,500 documents in India alone. We used to create logs and store it in the computer and notebook. My laptop was completely protected. The real time data and the fact that information was being stored real time meant that people were in touch with Mosack Fonseca. This meant that suppose you logged something as 534, when the Live update came in, it would need a different number. The exercise was becoming so cumbersome with every new addition to the dump but there was no solution and the only choice was using key words. The final dump came in January this year....they had information till December 2015. This was a LIVE project, not just a stock balance sheet and that is what made this eight-month collaboration very challenging and exciting”.

"India’s official reaction was the quickest in the world. The Prime Minister told the probe team not to waste any time. "

According to Sarin who had broken the earlier story on the HSBC-Swiss bank accounts of Indians , that investigation had been simpler : “There was a search engine feed in your name and the documents were static . In this case with the ICIJ feeding the machines every month, the logs would change and the operation was that much more complicated and cumbersome. In the case of HSBC accounts, the documents remained with you..they needed the specifications of your laptop and desktop..for the Panama Papers we had to create a hush mail..In the case of the HSBC the government had given around 650 names and we doubled it by revealing 1150 accounts. In the case of Project P, what distinguished it is from the earlier instance is the incorporation of offshore accounts and shell companies from years 1977 to December 2015 currently as three months back some Indians are incorporating companies! That clearly reveals that despite compliance people are still incorporating companies.

There were two conferences in the run up to the investigation, one in DC and another later in Munich. Sarin went to the Munich conference that was attended by around 100 journalists where even the conference venue was kept a secret. “I remember the Guardian editor Katherine Viner came with five reporters. That was the level of commitment from the leading UK paper,” said Sarin.

“At the September 2015 Munich conference there were some useful training sessions on how to search the documents and use the ICIJ search engine plus there were brief presentations on early finds from several countries, including India. It was at the conference that I got the first lead ( from an Irish journalist) about the inter trade documents in which the Elttronica spa- ministry of defence- Thunderbird agreements were outlined, mentioning commissions paid. That was, for me, one of the strongest stories we got from the Panama leaks.

Besides the vertical learning graph of dealing with the technical aspect of deciphering a LIVE digital dump of documents that is perpetually being updated, the investigation had some extremely frustrating moments tracking beneficiaries. “We were looking out for what was available in India. Just a name, any  person, any search. Many results would come up, Mumbai, Delhi and sometimes the trail would lead to nothing”, Iyer said.

Sarin adds that it was a gigantic effort to assess what they had in hand. “We did not profile anyone in this newspaper that had not been spoken to or found, whether it was Paharganj, Friends Colony or an address in Dehradun.  We had to be sure that communications reached the individual and gave them enough time to reply... Some told us off-record that they had the entity but did not want to comment on- record and some, despite giving them a serious chase chose not to respond but write to us after the story came out.  We sent copious lists to every centre of ours in the country and our reporters working on the investigation went out looking for these addresses and persons. Then there were examples like Aishwarya Rai whom we were alerted about when we saw the names of her family members - her father, mother and brother. In other cases, you may have just an address or name of a place.”

Often addresses were fake or a front. “For example, there was an address in Paharganj and there was nothing there, which means clearly there was a front being set up and getting that part of the investigation is critical. Politicians have done this before. They have put their drivers and cooks as shareholders,” said Iyer.

"An income tax official in a small town which had been named contacted Sarin asking her repeatedly to give him the details so he could issue those named with letters. "

Did it require visiting Panama ? “We didn’t go but lots of television crews on the team went to Panama. There were strict guidelines about when you should go to Panama - just a month before the release. They were worried about the system being hacked,” she said.

Was there any external or internal pressure on her or her team while doing the story? “I have done this three times now and each time very powerful people have been involved. Not once have I been asked to drop a name. There has been no pressure on me. Of course there has been pressure on the editor and  on me but it has not affected my or my team’s decision to pick prominent names from the voluminous data. It is possible we have missed out some - we are still at it – but we will take a break and come back. Obama said something very important. He talked about ‘gaming the system’. Only upper middle class who have whatever colour of money are stashing it abroad”, said Sarin.

Any threats, overt or covert from any quarter? Sarin says no one contacted them at any stage. “We never felt any threat. India is such a free country. As long as your paper backs you, it is fine. I have seen it all before and done it before. Our social media video on this has received two lakh hits and it is climbing. We have also got lots of ‘gaalis’ abuses. I literally went into hibernation for the entire time of the investigation and everyone just knew I was working on some big project..but it needed the commitment of our organisation that they spared three senior journalists for just one story over several months !”

For the entire team, it was an amazing experience to be part of this massive ICIJ project. Whenever the Express team mailed anyone, the reply used to come in five minutes. The protocols were strict. If you lost your cell phone or laptop, it had to be reported immediately.  

Was the impact of Project P favourable and worthwhile ? “I seriously feel that in journalism per se there is too much emphasis on impact. I was neither elated nor disappointed. I am happy that many people have approached us for media stories like you are have done. I have done good stories in the past and my paper has got traction. In a position like mine I am meant to do this, though of course this one was a very long one. I have been contacted by Bangladeshis , Sri Lankans, Chinese, French...”said Sarin.

India’s official reaction was the quickest in the world. The Prime Minister told the probe team not to waste any time. An income tax official in a small town which had been named contacted Sarin asking her repeatedly to give him the details so he could issue those named with letters.

Iyer says that the central issue is about how the rich and mighty use loopholes available in the law and exploit the system while millions of ordinary people pay taxes. Asked to answer critics who say that the Panama Papers are crucifying people who have only parked money abroad legally as per Indian government rules, he retorts: “I am sure 90 per cent of the people who are saying this are people of the lawyer variety who say no law has been broken. The law is such that they will say you can buy shares in an entity, but you cannot set up a company. But they will say some company is available to us as a shell company and I am going to acquire 100 per cent of the shares.”

He adds, “A corporate has to make enormous amounts of disclosures but in the case of individuals, no such disclosures are required. They do not have to file Annual Performance Report to the RBI like what companies taking the Overseas Direct Investment (ODI) route to expand overseas have to do. Let the Enforcement Directorate get hold of what all they have, how many bank accounts and whether they have put only the amount permitted. There is much more to it than the legal-illegal debate that is going on.”

According to Iyer, the multi-agency probe initiated by the government is the right thing to do. “Financial intelligence is required and balanced mechanisms are required otherwise it will be seen as tax terrorism.”

Did he expect such a huge response? “I will be honest, I did not expect such a response. The Prime Minister has taken a personal interest and called and instructed very senior officials not to delay the probe. Such a reaction straight from the PM is great, specially since going after black money has been a large part of his election promise.”

Eight months down the line, Team Panama chief Sarin admits that it was stressful keeping the  team motivated for so long. She also suffered a personal tragedy during this period when her husband died in January. But the work had to go on.  

Indian Express has done it all- Leichenstein, British Virgin Islands, the HSBC – Swiss accounts and now the Panama Papers…This is a peek into how much money of Indians is lying abroad. Much more will come out in the weeks and months ahead. After this we are going to track the probe committee” she adds. 


Nupur Basu is a journalist, documentary filmmaker and media educator



The Hoot is the only not-for-profit initiative in India which does independent media monitoring.
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