Pulitzer Prize-winning German investigative journalist Bastian Obermayer has echoed calls from prominent Australian journalists for better whistleblower protections here and abroad.
Obermayer, one of the originators of the blockbuster 2016 international investigative journalism expose into the offshore finance industry known as “The Panama Papers”, told a packed room at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last night that “we should have, in every country, whistleblower laws.
“If you acted in the public interest, there should be no punishment.”
His comments come as debate rages about press freedom in Australia following recent Australian Federal Police raids on News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst, and the ABC’s Sydney offices. Meanwhile Australian Taxation Office whistleblower Richard Boyle and David McBride, who leaked to the ABC the “Afghan Files” alleging that Australian troops killed unarmed civilians, are facing the prospect of lengthy prison terms.
Obermayer, deputy head of the investigative unit at the Munich-based daily paper Süddeutsche Zeitung, and his colleague Frederik Obermaier (no relation), were the original recipients of the leak that eventually delivered 11.5 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca detailing the affairs of over 200,000 entities. The subsequent investigation exposed the offshore money networks of some of the world’s richest figures, and has led to more than USD$1.2 billion being recovered by governments around the world
At the first of several public events during a month in Melbourne as a guest of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism, Obermayer shared an intimate behind-the-scenes account of the work that went into researching, verifying and ultimately publishing the material after receiving the initial approach from a source who would be known only as John Doe.
When Doe first contacted Obermayer, the journalist was enduring what he recalled as “the worst day of the year”. He was at home trying to care for two sick kids, and had to leave some of the initial conversations with his new source to make tea, change bed sheets and give out hugs.
“Who would imagine mass demonstrations in five countries would come from a story that started in the living room of my parents, with kids vomiting?” he said.
He admitted that he still wasn’t entirely sure why he was chosen by the leaker to receive the motherlode of documents, though his previous investigative work was probably a factor.“I don’t really know why it was me, but I do have a theory. One of the founders of Mossack Fonseca – he is German, born in Bavaria.”
Doe was frustrated with other international organisations he’d approached. They weren’t listening, he complained. But Obermayer had some familiarity with Mossack Fonseca from previous investigations. The firm had more than 200,000 shell companies, and so the name immediately piqued Obermayer’s interest.
“I thought ‘inside material from Mossack Fonseca? I really want to have more of that’.”
As the documents flowed in, Obermayer said the story became like “a small dog. He’s running away, and you have to chase him.”
One of the first challenges was figuring out how to manage and interrogate the vast amount of material. He had to convince his editor at Süddeutsche Zeitung, Wolfgang Krach, to buy computers with increasing amounts of data storage.
In an era of tight editorial budgets, this was a problem. The paper eventually bought a laptop costing some €18,000, with 1.5 terabytes of data, but only after Obermayer suggested that without some investment in suitable technology, the whole investigation might have to be abandoned, or passed on to another publication with more resources.
“No – we buy this fucking computer,” Krach, the editor, said.
The work required to trawl through the material required more human resources as well. Eventually, Krach agreed to share the scoop with other media organisations, though he initially thought the idea was crazy. Enlisting help via the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist (ICIJ) meant the story became even bigger, especially once Obermayer and his colleagues made the documents easily searchable. In total, 107 media organisations in 80 countries, including The Australian Financial Review in Australia, analysed the Panama Papers.
“We did that so we could work on all the international angles,” Obermayer explained.
After working on the stories for more than six months, the mood at Süddeutsche Zeitung on the eve of publication (set for April 3, 2016) was tense to the wire, typical of any big newsroom project. “The vibe was mostly … I hope we can finish our stories by the deadline at 8 o’clock,” he said.
“We were hoping the Pope would not die on this day. If the Pope dies, you can forget your story.”
The Pope did not die and the stories began to run, with seismic effect around the world.
One of the first big hits was in Iceland, where an investigation discovered that the country’s then-Prime Minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, held huge offshore shares in three of the country’s major banks. Gunnlaugsson directed public money to all three banks in a bid to save his own investments. He was forced to resign after 30,000 Icelanders – nearly a tenth of the total population – hit the streets and threw bananas and yoghurt in protest.
The phones rang off the hook as media organisations from near and far sought interviews with Obermayer and his colleagues.
“We couldn’t handle it. We couldn’t do interviews. We had like, 300 media requests. We had one poor guy who was doing an internship, and we told him … just make a list.”
That list spanned several pages within an hour. Since those initial stories, more than 5000 individual pieces of journalism have been published, a number so great “it’s humanly impossible to know them all”.
In order to try to safeguard his source, Obermayer stopped communicating with John Doe several weeks before publication. His biggest advantage in terms of protecting the whistleblower’s identity was not knowing it himself. He would not disclose whether he has had any further contact with Doe, but he has destroyed his hard drives, laptops and phones to make it harder for anyone to track the source down.
Initially he used software to try to scrub clean all his devices. But when experts suggested that this could not be guaranteed to safely erase the material, “we took a hammer to things,” Obermayer said, adding that it turned out it was not so easy to destroy a laptop. “It never works when you need it, but when you want to destroy it…”
And what of his own safety? The papers showed that associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin shuffled as much as $2 billion through banks and shadow companies, so when Obermayer visited Russia to interview American whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2018, he took his own food and drink. He also travelled in and out of Moscow on the opening day of the FIFA World Cup, when international eyes were focussed on the Kremlin.
“This is new to our lives. You think twice about where you travel to,” Obermayer said. “I certainly wouldn’t go to Panama.”
Bastian Obermayer is in Melbourne for a month as a guest of the University of Melbourne Centre for Advancing Journalism, with support from the Macgeorge Bequest. He appeared at The Wheeler Centre on 1 August alongside Australian journalist and collaborator Neil Chenoweth at a session hosted by the ABC’s Nassim Khadem. A recording of the talk will be available via The Wheeler Centre shortly.