Monday, April 4, 2016

The money shot - Panama Papers: a bragging Sueddeutsche & a bit too much Putin

It took only half a day until the K-Landnews TheEditor, lounging on the basement sofa next to the imaginary lava lamp, wearing a pair of thrift store used 1 Euro jeans and mismatching socks, could claim victory: It 'll blow over soon. TheEditor pointed to a short interview in Frankfurter Allgemeine with the chief of the German tax professionals union.

Panama has been known as a tax haven, a place where you can establish shell companies to hide money.

True, the leak known as Panama Papers is yuge, with millions of emails and tons of other data totaling some 2.6 terra bytes, according to Sueddeutsche Zeitung, also known as the lucky bastards contacted by a whistleblower and now scrambling to fix their overloaded web site.

When the story broke big time yesterday, we could still bring up their Panama Papers site and were struck by the lengthy praise of themselves and their partners in investigation. The folks who did the site design are obvious fans of Citizen Four, the Snowden documentary. The chat scrolling text is so Citizen Four, but classier, not bare bones green letters on a black terminal screen.

Listing the names of their German public broadcasting partners, their Austrian ones, showing how big the data trove was compared to other leakers, doing a 400 journalists over one year blurb looked, well, like bragging.

All the credits at the beginning of a movie. Most of the international partner sites did not feel the need to bore readers to death with an exhaustive list of contributing agencies and companies. You know, like, newspapers. Fusion did a lovely intro.

So, how did the reporting go?

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists has a neat web site with a player, and they really want your email to keep you up to date. Not nice.

Right now, NPR news is leading with Putin's inner circle, and this turns out to be the focus of most Western European papers. Those who do more nuanced reporting are far and few between. French Le Monde didn't run a Putin photo, which is cool, and neither did RT.COM, but that was expected.

German Der Spiegel and the British Telegraph were much more mainline, both featuring Putin photos despite the disclaimer that Putin's name was not found. Die Welt goes with the cello player who manages Putin's money. Given that there have been many detailed reports about shady finances of people close to Putin, the focus on the man would appear to be either unthinking or very focused. For serious Russia watchers, corruption since the fall of the Soviet Union has been an unending source of work.

Tabloid The Sun goes with a picture of Assad and Putin. German tabloid BILD reporters are all over Putin, too.

Many of the others in the rogues' gallery of shell company holders are the corrupt leaders we pretty much expect to see.

Did German papers, starting with Sueddeutsche, report on any shell companies set up by Germans?

So far, no. The next several days will show what they have or don't have.

Contrast this reporting with the near absence of traction the HuffPost/TheAge report on bribes in the oil industry got in the German media.

Despite the odd reporting, the unknown whistleblower deserves a big thank you for reminding us how much slush money is out there. Big data is not easy to handle, so, yes, thanks to the journalists for their effort.

The union chief mentioned above estimates that Germany loses about 50 billion Euros each year due to tax evasion. For comparison, this is about twice the amount Germany spends on basic means tested HARTZ IV to keep over four million citizens alive.

If you want to hide money, US shell companies are a much better deal - but only as long as you don't upset the status quo.

[Update 4/5/2016] Sueddeutsche Zeitung mentions that "a whistleblower" sold data of Mossack Fonseca to German authorities and says that several German banks, among government/state banks were fined as a result. It also says: The journalists compiled lists of important politicians, international criminals, and well-known professional athletes, among others. The digital processing made it possible to then search the leak for the names on these lists.
The public has not seen the lists. There was further processing, such as linking people for whom no hit was found, like Putin, with others (friends of his). This process is open to abuse, and readers are not informed of avenues that yielded negative results. For example, did one or more of "Putin's friends" have strong connections to oligarchs?

The number of Russians mentioned in the press so far is surprisingly small given that sanctions are in place against the country and given the generally widespread corruption.

Craig Murray also points out that, once again, all shell companies mentioned in a BBC documentary on the leak fall under British jurisdiction in the British Virgin Islands.

All in all, the biggest leak of all times looks more like a dumpster fire, catching predominantly known sleeze bags. Where is "the smart money"?

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