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Pulitzer winning journalist talks to HKBU Journalism students about Panama Papers

On Jan. 25, Frederik Obermaier, one of the two Süddeutsche Zeitung journalists who initiated and coordinated the biggest data leak in history, the Panama Papers, spoke to a class of journalism students at Hong Kong Baptist University about the entire publishing process.

Mr Obermaier introduced how he worked with his colleague Bastian Obermeyer, from the first John Doe text messages that started it, all the way to publishing, and the aftermath of the Panama Papers.

Mr Obermaier started the presentation by describing their first contact withJohn Doe, the whistleblower that claimed to possess insider data on the activities of a well-known Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca dating back to the 1970s. 

“Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data? I’m happy to share,” Mr Obermaier read the first anonymous messages his colleague received. 

Mr Obermaier explained that these messages were not uncommon in their office. Thus, they started to investigate if any of the data was legit and trustworthy. 

Upon receiving all of the data, it amounted to 2.6TB of data, the largest in history blowing all its predecessors out of the water. 

“If we were to open all the files by ourselves, it would take a minimum of 10 years, not to mention read through them,” Mr Obermaier said.

He added “that securing the data was the first challenge they face.”

In order to safeguard the precious data, Süddeutsche Zeitung purchased a €17,000 (HK$159,000) air gapped computer placed in a lockbox chained to the floor. Glitter nail polish was layered on top of the computer screws to ensure that it had not tampered with. 

Communication with John Doe was also encrypted that there was no way of knowing his or her identity.

However, as Mr Obermaier explained, the biggest task still remained, publishing this story as quickly and clearly as possible to the public.

In order to get this story out, Mr Obermaier and his colleague Mr Obermeyer reached out to The International Consortium of Journalists to assist them in their mission.

376 journalists from over 100 media organizations from over 76 countries were invited to participate in publishing the Panama Papers.

However, minutes before publishing, something significant happened.

Mr Obermaier showed a screenshot of a tweet, posted by the whistleblower of  the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden.

The tweet read, “Biggest data leak in data journalism just went live, and it’s about corruption” with a picture attached that read an ominous message “A storm is coming”. 

Mr Obermaier added that despite the worrying tweet, the story had not been leaked. On April 3, 2016, all of the involved journalists working on the story published their findings simultaneously all at once.

The impact was monumentous. 

World leaders including David Cameron, the British prime minister at the time, Icelandic prime minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, family members of Chinese President Xi Xinping, and the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hidden financial dealings were exposed.

Businessmen such as Donald Trump, football stars such as Andy Cole and Lionel Messi, drug lords, mafia organizations, arms smugglers, tax evaders, child rapists running child prostitution rings were also exposed.

However, after the Papers were published, two of the journalists who worked on the story, Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak were killed by a car bomb and shot dead respectively.

“It broke my stereotype of investigative reporting,” said Ibrahim Shameel who participated in the talk.

He said that the most interesting part was when Mr Obermaier talked about receiving the message from John Doe and how he asked for more information..

“Because it correlated with recent in-class discussions on ‘What would you do if you were the one receiving the anonymous message’,” Mr Ibrahim added         

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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