Tuesday, Sep 27, 2022

Explained | Panama Papers: The Whistleblowers

After the source of the Uber Files investigation, the whistleblower of the 2016 Panama Papers has given his first interview. What motivates such whistleblowers, and why doesn’t India have any on that scale?

The Panama Papers, a sprawling and impactful offshore investigation by the ICIJ in which The Indian Express partnered, exposed how the rich and powerful parked and moved their money in and out of global tax havens.

Within 10 days, two whistleblowers have gone public in interviews given to major media outlets. Is this a coincidence?

It could be.

On July 13, Mark MacGann, who worked with Uber as a senior lobbyist for years, was named in an interview with The Guardian as the person who had leaked the 1,24,000 documents that are now described as the Uber Files. MacGann was revealed to be the source of the data towards the end of the publication of the series of investigative reports that make up the Uber Files, a collaboration led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), The Guardian, and 42 other media outlets, including The Indian Express.

And on July 22, the whistleblower of the Panama Papers gave his first-ever interview to Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer, who were earlier investigative reporters with the German daily newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, and who now collaborate with the German magazine Der Spiegel.

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The Panama Papers, a sprawling and impactful offshore investigation by the ICIJ in which The Indian Express partnered, exposed how the rich and powerful parked and moved their money in and out of global tax havens. The investigation, which was published in April 2016, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

In his interview to Obermaier and Obermayer, the Panama Papers whistleblower — who still prefers to remain anonymous, referred to only as “John Doe” — recalled that the source for the Watergate investigation, former FBI associate director W Mark Felt, had revealed himself to be “Deep Throat” only after 33 years. Felt did this in 2005 in an interview to Vanity Fair magazine, when he was 91.

“I have thought about Mark Felt from time to time and the types of risks he faced. My risk profile looks a bit different from his. I may have to wait until I’m on my deathbed,” the whistleblower of the Panama Papers has said.

What are the major takeaways from the interview given by John Doe?


The Panama Papers were a leak of 2.6 terabytes of secret data of the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which had to eventually shut down due to the global media revelations of offshore holdings of heads of state, heads of government, criminals, and drug cartels. The man who blew the whistle on the law firm’s entire clientele and network says compiling the data for the giant media leak “felt like looking down the barrel of a loaded gun”.

Interestingly, John Doe has revealed that he had first offered the Panama Papers data dump to at least three premier publications, including Wikileaks, all of whom had seemed “uninterested” in the project. He eventually shared the dump with two reporters of Suddeutsche Zeitung, the same journalists to whom he has now given his first interview.

The whistleblower has also said that a year after the publication of the Panama Papers, in 2017, he had given “a ton” of Mossack Fonseca documents to the German federal police for a fee. However, he has said the German authorities had “violated” their agreement on safety for himself and his family, which “put my safety at risk”.


Also, he has said, the German government did not fully “honour the financial arrangement”, and that he was shocked at the manner at which the German police repeatedly turned down the opportunity to analyse “more” data about the offshore world beyond the Panama Papers. “I was not comfortable with their overall approach,” he has said.

Haven’t the travails of Edward Snowden, who leaked classified data on the US National Security Agency (NSA) in 2013, deterred the present-day whistleblowers?

Evidently not. Uber’s whistleblower, Mark MacGann, has said he was, in fact, facing threats to his life while he was working with Uber. In his interview earlier this month, he said: “I think people need to look at the facts that I’m helping to expose. Certainly I have had grievances with Uber in the past. What I’m doing isn’t easy, but I believe it’s the right thing.”

On Uber’s corporate lobbying successes, he said, “These are cozy networks that have existed for so long but still manage to change shape, but still exist. Access to power is still not something that is democratized.”

John Doe has spoken about the future of Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia, and was given permanent residency there in 2020. Snowden has been active in the seminar and social media space. “I used to work for the Government. Now I work for the public,” he says in his Twitter bio.


On Snowden being “trapped” in Russia for fear of being prosecuted in the United States, John Doe has said: “If the American intelligence community has evidence against him, it would lay it out for all to see. If they do not, President Biden should pardon him and welcome him home.”

Does India have a comparable case of a whistleblower revealing major state or corporate secrets?


None that are comparable to the scale of the scandals exposed by whistleblowers about the US National Security Agency or the offshore secrets of Mossack Fonseca. One well-known Indian whistleblower was Satyendra Dubey, an IIT graduate working on a segment of the National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI) Golden Quadrilateral in Bihar, who wrote directly to the Prime Minister’s Office exposing corruption in the project. He paid with his life for doing so, and The Indian Express in 2003 published a series of articles exposing the NHAI scandal.

The year after Dubey’s killing, in 2004, the government introduced the Public Interest Disclosure and Protection Of Informers (PIDPI) Resolution for the logging of complaints against alleged corruption or misuse of office by a government officer or department. The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) was designated as the agency to administer complaints, which it continues to routinely route to its relevant section after masking the name of the whistleblower.


It was almost a decade later, in 2014, that the government enacted the Whistleblowers Protection Act, aimed at providing a legislative route for people to file complaints on alleged corruption and misuse of office by public servants.

Eight years have passed, and the Act has not come into force, and the Rules for it have not been finalised.

First published on: 23-07-2022 at 04:30:50 am
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