The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for the Panama Papers that uncovered offshore shell companies and tax havens based on leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. As part of ICIJ’s 108-strong network of news organisations worldwide, The Indian Express had, over eight months, investigated the India angle of the Panama Papers.
The Indian Express investigation revealed the names of over 500 Indian individuals and entities linked to offshore companies and trusts. The first set of reports was published on April 4, 2016.
Acting on these reports, Indian tax authorities have, until last month, traced 424 Indian clients of MF and sent 283 references to 13 offshore jurisdictions asking for incorporation, investment and bank account details of entities linked to Indian nationals.
Hours after the award announcement in New York Monday, Gerard Ryle, who leads the ICIJ headquarters in Washington DC, said The Indian Express was one of the media partners “that made this happen and the newspaper and its reporters should bask in the moment”. The award, he said in an email to The Indian Express, is a “testimony to teamwork and to have so many reporters working in so many languages, across so many cultures, is almost unbelievable”.
“The importance of the award cannot be measured. It is a vindication of all the hard work everyone all over the world put into this story and a vindication that sometimes some stories just need to be done in a different way from the norm,” said Ryle.
The Express team that investigated the documents was led by Executive Editor (Investigations) Ritu Sarin; National Affairs Editor P Vaidyanathan Iyer and Associate Editor Jay Mazoomdaar.
At least 25 reporters and editors of The Indian Express worked on the investigation. They were among more than 300 reporters from across six continents who collaborated under the leadership of ICIJ.
Ryle mentioned Sarin saying that he would like to pay “particular tribute” to her. “Ritu has really embraced our model of radical sharing,” he said.
The Pulitzer Prize Board, which announced the awards in 21 categories on April 10, said in its citation that ICIJ won the award for the “series of stories using a collaboration of more than 300 reporters on six continents to expose the hidden infrastructure and global scale of offshore tax havens”.
ICIJ had shared 11.5 million secret documents of MF, which helped individuals and companies set up anonymous shell companies in tax havens across the globe.
The data was first obtained by Bastian Obermayer, an investigative journalist with Süddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper, who was approached by an anonymous source in early 2015.
The source said, “Hello. This is John doe. Interested in data?” Obermayer responded with, “We’re very interested, of course.”
From there, Obermayer and his colleague Frederik Obermaeir received multiple troves over the next few months.
They shared these data, which included records of 214,000 offshore companies and names of real or ‘beneficial’ owners of shell companies that Mossack Fonseca had helped their clients with ICIJ.
The ICIJ then shared the documents with journalists and media organisations who are its members, and the journalists worked on their independent stories, relevant to the local audience.
Ryle said that he was not in US when the Pulitzer Prize Board announced the award, but watched the ceremony live from Amsterdam. He said Obermayer had come to ICIJ’s Washington DC office to watch the announcement.
“Bastian, Frederik and their very brave editor-in-chief Wolfgang Krach deserve every accolade that can be thrown at them. So too the staff of ICIJ and the hundreds of journalists who worked on this project,” he said.
The Pulitzer Prize Board had moved the Panama Papers from the international reporting category, for which the ICIJ had applied, to explanatory reporting.
Ryle said ICIJ was not aware that their entry had been moved, but that the team had been “hopeful” of winning a Pulitzer Prize.
The Panama Papers “continues to deliver stories but most of all we have shown this model can work and therefore it is likely to be copied and used again. That is good for the public and for journalism,” said Ryle.