An Interview With A Member of the Panama Papers Investigation Team
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Tenured journalist Margarita (Mago) Torres moved to Washington D.C. from Mexico nearly a year ago to continue her work in the U.S. In a moment Torres now refers to as "fate", a friend put her in touch with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), one of the largest non-profit investigative journalism organizations in America, where she contributed to the Panama Papers project, an operation that is now referred to as the biggest investigative journalistic operation in history.
We sat down with Mago to ask about what went on behind the scenes during the year-long investigation.
When you first heard about this assignment, did you understand the magnitude of it?
Torres: No, not really. I wish I could say that I understand finance and offshore accounts, but my background isn’t very related. But I'm familiar with major leaks in the past – the Swiss Leaks, the Luxembourg Leaks, and all the others. We could see similar patterns. When we started digging deeper into the documents, we found a lot of things. The findings have been released in successive waves because of the process it's had to go through – a handful of documents are revealed, then there's an update, and another, and so on. And every time we received a new piece of the puzzle, we thought, "What's going on here?" I think that, of course, the people from the [German paper] Süddeutsche Zeitung and ICIJ knew what we were looking for. Then, we started to find the Mexican names, and I thought, "wow... okay." When you start seeing things that are related to you, that's when it hits you.
"The Panama Papers investigation will become an example for new journalism in the future."
Can you describe the process that went into sorting all of the information?
Torres: There was a system that first generated the indexes to organize the information. Then, everything passed through encryption and security. And then it went through the process to make the information OCR readable, which meant we could search through the documents, even if they were images or PDF.
I worked mostly on the Power Players maps, an interactive list of all the well-known people involved and the way they went about using offshore accounts. This is important, because it gives everyone the power to look at this information in the best way for them. As a journalist, you wonder how you're going to tell the story to a local audience... When you're fact-checking documents and trying to understand how it all happened, you realize that some of the power players used three or four layers to hide their money. Others were more direct. The map helps break that down into an understandable format.
Click through the interactive map Torres' collaborated on below to explore the offshore connections of world leaders, politicians, and their relatives and associates.
What exactly were your responsibilities with the project?
Torres: I participated as a researcher with the data and research unit, and one of my roles was to do fact-checking within the documents. There were a lot of names included in the documents, but just because a name is there doesn't mean they went through the process to create an illegal company. Actually, most of the power players involved hadn't done anything illegal at all; they just used some of those services. This is a part of the rigor of journalism. You can't just look at a name and publish that they were there. I also worked on generating the numbers – how many politicians, how much money, and so on.
The thing about ICIJ is that I didn't have just one mission. Navigating through all the data and the sheer mass of documents wouldn't have been possible without maximal collaboration. One of the principles of the ICIJ is to collaborate and share information. So things happen naturally. During my research, we found that we didn't have enough information about the power players, so I was granted access to the National Archives in[the state of] Maryland. In the end, you help with what's needed. For example, a lot of the documents were in Spanish. I'm Mexican, and of course speak Spanish, so I became a translator for those documents. You learn a lot working with people that are so professional – how rigorous the work is, how collaborative it can be. Also it’s encouraging because you work at incredibly different intensities over a year of work.
With 2.6 terabytes of data, the Panama Papers project is the biggest journalistic investigation in history. To manage it, do you think the team created a new kind of journalism?
Torres: That’s complex. I think it can be new concerning the amount of information. I think we've set a new standard for collaboration. Teams had to be interdisciplinary – you can't just have journalists, or just data or tech people in teams anymore. Collaboration between them helps immensely. I've been in the U.S. for a year now, and I'm seeing this more and more. Leaks are becoming bigger. That's what's interesting. The previous major leaks prepared teams of media, technology, and journalism for something like the Panama Papers. We’re seeing the possibilities of collaboration.
It’s a little cheesy, but it’s been beautiful to witness and be a part of that change. To share possibilities and knowledge in such a collaborative group. It’s possible, and you need to find a common language to do that. There were so many different languages in the room, and everyone was on the same page. I will never get tired of saying that the generosity of ICIJ has been amazing for me. In countries like mine, you’ll say, what’s the situation of freedom of expression? Is there quality journalism? With ICIJ, I landed in such a professional and generous environment, and it made me realize that it’s possible. It takes time, but it’s possible to get there.
Do you think the world’s reaction to this will have long-lasting effects?
Torres: I think it will. Some newsrooms may want to collaborate more. I think the spirit of collaboration will expand, which is amazing. I think it’s hard to tell with politics. We’re already seeing immediate changes in countries like Iceland. Other countries have governments that say, “we’re going to investigate,” but then nothing happens. But a journalist’s job is to expose and explain, and that’s what we’ve done here.
I think it’ll be interesting to see what happens to journalism after this, in terms of collaboration and what skills are required. I think the Panama Papers investigation will become an example for new journalism in the future. To understand how things can be done. I want to think that that will be the biggest impact.
Torres holds a PhD in Journalism with a focus on ethics, she taught Communications at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, and is the cofounder of Periodistas de a Pie, a network of journalists based in Mexico City, mainly dedicated to the training of journalists with a human rights perspective. She is currently working on her first book about self-regulation in Mexican journalism.
Torres was a researcher with the Panama Papers investigation.