FIFI PETERS: The secret workings of the world’s rich and powerful in hiding their wealth through a number of mechanisms such as tax avoidance and, in some instances, even money laundering, were once again thrust into the spotlight at the weekend with the release of the Pandora Papers – the leaks there. These papers comprise 12 million documents, and we have had more than 600 journalists in 117 countries – so in most parts of the world including South Africa – sifting through the files for months in an attempt to reveal the inner workings of the shadow economy that benefits the wealthy and the well connected.
We have Anton Harber, who is professor of journalism at Wits University for more on this story. Anton, thanks so much for your time. My goodness, where does one even begin when you think about 12 million documents this time around? I can just imagine the amount of sleepless nights that the journalists who worked on the story went through. But what do you make of the latest exposé of the secret world of the rich and powerful?
ANTON HARBER: Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to talk about what is a fascinating story and development. One of the extraordinary skills that investigative journalists do need these days is to learn how to handle 12 million documents. You can imagine it takes a lot of technology, and a lot of understanding of how to efficiently process them. You can’t read them all, so you have to use quite sophisticated search techniques, for example. But there’ve been 600 journalists working on this over two years, some of the most skilled and experienced journalists in the world, coordinated by the ICIJ, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. They specialise in this kind of work, handling that quantity of documents and coordinating journalists across the world in extraordinary cross-border work.
FIFI PETERS: I [can] imagine the level of accuracy that is needed in storytelling and reporting here, given that you’re dealing with really powerful individuals about whom you can’t afford to make a mistake.
ANTON HARBER: There’s no question. Yes, the journalists are vulnerable and if they get anything wrong – because you are talking about people who have access to all the legal resources they need if you make a mistake. You can imagine the skill it takes to separate 12 million documents to find the story hidden in them, and how the emails connect and, of course, the attempt to verify. I’ve no idea where they got them – and they got them from a source that they knew was authentic. But of course the greatest danger is that somebody slips you a whole lot of documents and, within that, slips in some fake documents in order to discredit you.
FIFI PETERS: Just for our listeners who are thinking this is déjà vu, have they not heard it before, it kind of feels that way, because we had the Paradise Papers, we had the Panama Papers, now we are talking of the Pandora Papers, all speaking to the same thing – about how the wealthy and the rich and powerful are using these sophisticated ways to hide their wealth and build it up. Why do you think it seems that after a few years or so we have another rendition of some form of a secret working of tax avoidance, why do you think that the behaviour hasn’t stopped?
ANTON HARBER: Well, it hasn’t. I think this set of papers goes a long way to explaining why papers go out, because many of the politicians and bureaucrats who say they are trying to stop it are implicated in it themselves, in using these offshore techniques to move, hide and launder money.
Let me say that some of it may be absolutely legitimate, people who’ve declared their money. You might ask why they choose to put it in in these complicated trusts and systems and companies. But obviously many of them are there to launder money, to hide money, to avoid tax and to transact in illegal activities.
Actually you are right, there’s been a pattern of massive leaks of documents that deal with this topic of offshore tax havens and offshore structures that allow people to hide their money. This really gives extraordinary insight into how money and power works in the modern world. I think that’s the really important thing. Yes, in all of these exposés have been some individuals and some companies that have been exposed, and it has led to the fall of presidents and prime ministers, and it has led to new laws and all sorts of things.
But the most remarkable thing is to learn more about the network of lawyers and accountants and operations that specialise in making this kind of thing happen and in the money and power that goes with it.
FIFI PETERS: Not to mention the banks, which also play a key role in facilitating the movement of all this wealth.
But prof, we’ll leave it there. Thanks so much for your time. That was Anton Haber, professor of journalism at Wits.
Just to give you an indication of some of the individuals cited in the papers, you have Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and the secret workings of his family, the King of Jordan who secretly amassed a property empire in the UK and in the US. You’ve got ex-UK prime minister Tony Blair, Russian president Vladimir Putin, of whom I think I saw an article in which he actually denied the allegations and his name being in the leaked papers, as well as Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš. So just a few names of the rich and powerful who are doing secret things that perhaps they shouldn’t.