Panama Papers Leak Signals a Shift in Mainstream Journalism, NYT

Artículo publicado en el diario New York Times el domingo 10 de abril de 2016.

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Jim Rutenberg, APRIL 10, 2016

WASHINGTON — Four years passed between The New York Times’s first article based on the Pentagon Papers and the end of the Vietnam War.

Two years passed between The Washington Post’s first story establishing Richard M. Nixon’s link to the Watergate burglary and Nixon’s resignation from the presidency.

Last week, Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson of Iceland couldn’t make it 48 hours before having to step aside after the disclosure of the shady bank dealings contained in the Panama Papers, some of which involve him.

O.K., I know: It’s just Iceland, remote and adorably tiny. Who knew it had a government position higher than forstodumadur Fiskistofa (director of Fisheries)? Kidding, Iceland, kidding! I understand how you’re at the center of something bigger than both your country and mine, and I promise that you won’t be mad at me by the time you’re done reading this.

Because while we Americans were transfixed by the latest plot turns in our presidential campaign, you and the rest of the world were living through the biggest corporate data leak in history. It had reverberations not only in Iceland, but in China, Britain, Russia, Argentina and some 50 other countries.

But the leak signaled something else that was a big deal but went unheralded: The official WikiLeaks-ization of mainstream journalism; the next step in the tentative merger between the Fourth Estate, with its relatively restrained conventional journalists, and the Fifth Estate, with the push-the-limits ethos of its blogger, hacker and journo-activist cohort, in the era of gargantuan data breaches.

Back at the dawn of this new, Big Breach journalism, The Times’s then-executive editor, Bill Keller, wondered aloud in the paper’s Sunday magazine whether “The War Logs,” a huge cache of confidential war records and diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in conjunction with The Times, Der Spiegel, The Guardian and others, represented “some kind of cosmic triumph of transparency.” He concluded, “I suspect we have not reached a state of information anarchy, at least not yet.” That was in 2011.

Five years later, it is safe to say that we are getting much closer. This is changing the course of world history, fast. It is also changing the rules for mainstream journalists in the fierce business of unearthing secrets, and for the government and corporate officials in the fiercer business of keeping them.

Any early questions about the effect of WikiLeaks’s trove were answered a few months after Mr. Keller’s article appeared, when WikiLeaks won credit for helping to spark the Arab Spring. It revealed a cable highlighting the opulence and self-dealing of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and his family, enraging his already restive and economically pinched public. His ouster shortly followed.

Last year, a federal judge doubted the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records after the program was disclosed in data leaked by the former intelligence contractor Edward J. Snowden. Mr. Snowden’s information also helped set up this year’s standoff between Apple and the Justice Department over iPhone encryption.

Now we have the 11.5 million files known as the Panama Papers, based on documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that detail shell companies and tax shelters used by the world’s wealthy and powerful. They are causing political heartburn — and potentially worse — forPresident Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, and yes, Iceland.

But for everyday mopes who file their taxes by the letter of the law, as opposed to through its loopholes, the biggest shocker was how much tax avoidance contained in the Panama Papers was legal, as Glenn Greenwald wrote in The Intercept. That is a lit match to the political tinder of the increasingly global view that the game is rigged — something that’s at the heart of the appeals of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump here at home.

It’s the stuff journalists live for. But the deep data sets that are making these sorts of revelations possible are presenting new conundrums for reporters and editors more accustomed to banging the phones and interviewing live human beings.

This issue initially surfaced in the WikiLeaks “War Logs” collaboration. In their carefully constructed stories with WikiLeaks, The Times, The Guardian and other partners redacted the names of sensitive sources mentioned in the documents. But later, some WikiLeaks-held reports spilled out online with names of sensitive sources, drawing accusations that lives were put at risk.

The WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange, and his supporters have noted that no known physical harm came from any of it. But none of this helped the “War Logs” source, Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), the Army private who received a 35-year prison sentence on charges of violating the Espionage Act. The sentence was part the United States government’s aggressive attempts to put this Big Breach era to an end. Fat chance.

As a group, investigative journalists and their sources operate in grave fear of jail time, but not as much as they fear being cowed out of important stories by the government.

Things can be trickier when the data belongs to corporations. Consider the Sony Pictures Entertainment hacking, said to have been perpetrated by North Korea in a bid to scuttle the Sony film spoofing the country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un. Reporters found some juicy tidbits in executive emails. But they were also, as the Sony lawyer David Boies claimed, unwittingly helping “a nation state using the intrusion to attempt to intimidate and suppress the distribution of a film.”

Mr. Boies got only so far in his attempt to convince the news media that they were legally bound to ignore the data, and delete any they had downloaded. But, he told me, the more reporting gets away from serving an obvious public interest, “the more problematic” it becomes to publish information that was acquired illegally.

The organizers of the Panama Papers project, at the nonprofit International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, said they kept that in mind as they pursued the leads in the database of the law firm Mossack Fonseca, whichsays the information was hacked. When I visited the consortium’s Washington office on Friday, its director, Gerard Ryle, told me he did not know if the data was hacked. But he pointed me to the writing atop the big white board laying out the Panama Papers’ production schedule: “Is an issue of global concern?” (A: Yes.)

Taking some cues from the Sony and WikiLeaks cases, Mr. Ryle said his consortium had been extra careful not to make all of its data public, especially the personal information of nonpublic figures, playing a gatekeeper role.

Referring to WikiLeaks, Mr. Ryle said, “We’re trying to reclaim ground that they stole — or, they took,” which mainstream journalism allowed because “we got lazy and sloppy and arrogant about what we were supposed to do: shine light into dark places.”

Not everyone is thrilled with this. WikiLeaks wrote in a tweet: “If you censor more than 99% of the documents you are engaged in 1% journalism.” But that criticism is not universal in Fifth Estate circles. Which brings us back to Iceland.

A leader of the opposition Pirate Party there, Parliament Member Birgitta Jonsdottir, was a WikiLeaks volunteer who at times worked intimately with Mr. Assange. She has the United States subpoena for her personal Twitter information to show for it. (The “Game of Thrones” actress Carice van Houten plays her in “The Fifth Estate.”)

When I spoke with her last week, she was thrilled with the Panama Papers. “It’s amazing to see,” she said. Ms. Jonsdottir’s party is vying to take control of the government on a platform that includes making Iceland “one place in the world where data could be hosted without danger to whistle-blowers” — a haven for data breach journalism.

As they say in Iceland, if that isn’t the raisin at the end of the sausage.

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