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Pandora Papers: a historic moment for journalism

The biggest investigation in the history of journalism, led by a team of 600 journalists from 150 media outlets, uncovers the mechanics of a shadow economy that benefits the wealthy at the expense of everyone else.

The investigation was carried out by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and it reveals the involvement of 35 current and former world leaders, more than 330 politicians and public officials, and 29 000 top financial figures in 91 countries, in offshore dealings.

The unprecedented leak of 11.9 million confidential documents, dubbed the Pandora Papers, is already causing a global reaction, as it offers an unparalleled insight into how money and power operate in the 21st century – and how the rule of law has been manipulated around the world for the benefit of the few.

The data

The 2.94 terabytes of data, leaked to ICIJ and shared with media partners around the world, arrived in various formats: as documents, images, emails, spreadsheets and more.

The documents contain an unprecedented amount of information on the so-called “beneficial owners of entities” registered in the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles, Hong Kong, Belize, Panama, South Dakota and other secrecy jurisdictions. They also include information on shareholders, directors and officers.

While some of the files date back to the 1970s, most of the ones reviewed by ICIJ were created between 1996 and 2020 and cover a wide range of activities: the creation of front companies, foundations and trusts; the use of these entities to purchase real estate, yachts, jets and life insurance; the use of front companies to make investments and move money between bank accounts; estate planning and other inheritance issues; tax avoidance and tax evasion. Some documents are linked to financial crimes, including money laundering.

The more than 11.9 million files were largely unstructured. More than half of the files (6.4 million) were text documents, including more than 4 million PDF files, some of which were over 10 000 pages long. The documents included passports, bank statements, tax returns, company incorporation records, real estate contracts and due diligence questionnaires. The leak also contained more than 4.1 million images and emails. Spreadsheets made up 4% of the documents, or more than 467 000. Slide shows and audio and video files were also included in the files.

The Pandora Papers investigation is even bigger than the landmark Panama Papers scandal, which shook the world in 2016 and led to police raids and new laws in dozens of countries, as well as the fall of prime ministers in Iceland and Pakistan.

The Panama Papers came from the files of a single offshore service provider: the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The Pandora Papers provide even more information on 14 offshore service providers. Three of the offshore providers are owned by former senior government officials: a former minister and presidential adviser in Panama and a former attorney general of Belize. In total, the new document leak reveals the true owners of more than 29 000 offshore companies. The owners come from more than 200 countries, with the majority of them located in Russia, the UK, Argentina and China.

The 150 news media partners include the Washington Post, the BBC, the Guardian, Radio France, Oštro Croatia, the Indian Express, Zimbabwe’s The Standard, Morocco’s Le Desk and Ecuador’s Diario El Universo.

The investigation required an international team of 600 journalists and took almost two years of work because the 14 offshore providers from which the leaked documents originated are based all over the world – from the Caribbean to the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea.