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From the Panama Papers to forbidden stories: Reflections on journalism’s new era of connectivity

German journalist Bastian Obermayer received the leak of the Panama Papers, then shared the document dump with media organisations across 80 countries. Winding up a teaching and speaking sojourn in Australia, he reflects on his journey and on building connections in the era of media disruption.  By Jack Banister. 

From the Panama Papers to forbidden stories: Reflections on journalism’s new era of connectivity
Words by Jack Banister
 

By his own admission, renowned investigative journalist Bastian Obermayer is fiercely competitive. Ordinarily not a surprising characteristic for someone in his game. Except that Obermayer is feted internationally for his role in pioneering a new era of collaborative reporting.

Obermayer, 41, grew up in Rosenheim, a West German town in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps. He battled his father, Helmut, in soccer, board games, tennis – anything. The game didn’t matter. The result did.

If the father lost, he knew how to wind his son up. “I just let you win,” he would say. “I know how you react if you lose. It’s better that I let you win.”

Rosenheim was a fiercely conservative place during Obermayer’s childhood in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but his mother, Ingrid, didn’t follow the political status quo. She protested for peace and the environment, and against nuclear weapons, and was dubbed by some locals as the “Green Witch”.

Her son inherited that sense of justice, and quickly grew to share her scepticism about the local paper, Oberbayerisches Volksblatt, which he says was “even more conservative than the local government.

“I saw things happening, and I didn’t find it [sic] in the paper … they simply ignored a lot that was going on. I found this to be unfair.”

Obermayer remembers the moment of realisation he had as a teenager when he first picked up a copy of Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), the Munich-based daily paper where he now works.

“They had stories from all over the world … and also, people who said, maybe the conservatives are right, or maybe they’re wrong. But you have a chance to make up your own opinion. And so I thought, well, this is what I want to do.”

He abandoned a plan to become a sports journalist after finishing university, and scored an internship with SZ’s magazine. There, he quickly moved into a full-time role writing long form stories about anything from heart transplant, to war criminals and sporting stars.

He developed a reputation for his forensic attention to detail, and was asked to join SZ’s investigative team in 2012. Then, in 2015, came a leak so big that it quickly became clear there was only one way to tackle it. Obermayer would have to share. In doing so, he helped to redefine an evolving template for innovative cross-border collaborative journalism in an era of diminishing newsroom resources.

His name is now synonymous with the Panama Papers, the title given to the 11.5 million documents – 2.6 terabytes of data leaked to Obermayer via a mysterious source, unimaginatively dubbed “John Doe”. The documents came from inside a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, and were bursting with details of the offshore money networks of some of the world’s richest and most influential figures – among them, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, the kings of Morocco and Saudi Arabia, and British actress Emma Watson.

Obermayer and his confusingly monikered newsroom colleague, Frederik Obermaier, spent countless hours interrogating the papers. They call it “hanging out in the data”, and would do it anywhere, anytime – on a tram stop, or before bed.

“I was so addicted,” Obermayer says.

It may look like he’s transformed with age into the quintessential data nerd, but scratch the surface a little and the competitive kid is still there.

Obermayer has just wound up a month long stay in Melbourne, teaching and writing on a fellowship with the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Advancing Journalism. At home in Munich, he still plays soccer –  in his lingo, football – with a troupe of friends and journalists.

“On the football field, I’m just a very different person. I know from my past that I am best in football if I am a little angry at my defender, or if I am a little annoyed by the referee. And if it’s rainy, it’s just the perfect combination.

“I’m not an arsehole. But I’m not a nice player, also,” he says, laughing. 

After months of ploughing through the Panama Papers avalanche of documents – a collection that would ultimately be recognised as the biggest data leak in history – Obermayer passed it all on to 107 media organisations across 80 countries via the Washington D.C-based International Consortium of Journalists (ICIJ).

The decision, he explains, was motivated by pragmatism rather than idealism. There was simply no way his newsroom could process all material – they’d already updated their computers multiple times just to store the data.

Indeed, he describes it as “the most selfish decision we could have made because it got our names, and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, so much in the focus of everyone in the whole world.

“We would never have achieved that if we had kept it for ourselves.”

Obermayer had already been the beneficiary of leaks received by other journalists via ICIJ collaborations on the Offshore Leaks, the Luxembourg Leaks, and the Swiss Leaks. The Panama Papers were an opportunity to give something back.

More than 5000 stories were published from the Panama Papers, and Obermayer says that many of them would’ve gone missing without the collaboration. The journalists all signed non-disclosures, and worked together in encrypted forums. The approach meant that stories were worked on by journalists who knew their subject matter intimately, and were published where they would be most resonant.

A certificate confirming Gunnlauggson’s offshore shares. Photo: ICIJ

A certificate confirming Gunnlauggson’s offshore shares. Photo: ICIJ

Icelandic journalists from SVT and Reykjavik Media were able to interrogate the offshore companies of Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, who resigned when it was discovered that his wife owned offshore shares in three of the country’s major banks. Gunnlaugsson directed public money to all three banks in a bid to save the investments.

$1.2 billion USD has been recovered globally because of the Panama Papers investigation. Nearly $100 million USD of that money was recovered in Australia. The ICIJ has since used its collaborative model on the Paradise Papers, the West Africa Leaks, and the Mauritius Leaks.

While journalism is facing a new reality after the collapse of old newsroom models to what is now shorthanded as the “digital disruption”, and the ICIJ collaborations are often framed  as one of the happier by-products of that fallout, Obermayer isn’t persuaded. He says that shrinking newsrooms and resources have not been a major motivator for the collaborations.

For him, the momentum has come from the severity and reach of the financial crimes they were observing. “It’s more that we all realised that the bad guys are working cross border a lot. And we [journalists] used to stop with the borders … now we’re all learning we have to work together.”

Another major benefit of working cross-border with more than 300 journalists was that it made stories infinitely harder to kill. Obermayer says that “it felt really good to write the sentence that nearly 400 colleagues have, right now, access to those documents, because then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to take you out if you know there are 399 others”.

And that recognition of the power of the collective has helped another lesser known, but equally ground-changing initiative.

In a bid to widen the safety net for journalists pursuing high risk stories helped to set up an organisation called Forbidden Stories, which was the brainchild of his close friend, Laurent Richard. It provides journalists with an encrypted site where they can store documents and data while they are working on their stories, which can then be accessed by colleagues across the globe if they’re intimidated or jailed or – and it happens too often – killed.

The idea, as Obermayer puts it, is to let the world know that “you can kill the messenger, but not the message”.

The project kicked into gear for the first time when Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia – whose son Obermayer had known for years via the ICIJ – was killed by a car bomb near her home in Bidnija in October 2017. 45 journalists from 15 countries picked up her investigations into Malta’s politicians and organised criminals. They are still investigating her leads, publishing her stories and trying to uncover details about her unsolved murder.

In April 2017, when the ICIJ’s Panama Papers investigation won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, Obermayer went up on stage to collect the coveted prize – the dream of American journalists, but a strange moment for a German one.

“I never thought about winning, because it’s not possible for someone publishing in Germany, in German language. I can’t say it’s been my dream. It was literally impossible for me,” he says.

This story is co-published with the Walkley Magazine

 

About The Citizen

THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

  • Editor: Jo Chandler
  • Reporter: Jack Banister
  • Audio & Video editor: Louisa Lim
  • Data editor: Craig Butt
  • Editor-In-Chief: Andrew Dodd
  • Business editor: Lucy Smy
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