The perfect leak… with perfectly non-existent implications?

“[The] perfect leak” (White, 2016) of the Panama papers is the largest data leak of our time. It contains a staggering 2.6 Terabytes of data. To put that into perspective, it is 100 times larger than Wikileaks, and would take one person an estimated 25 years to read through all the data (Panama Papers, 2020). That’s a phenomenal amount of corruption, which one would assume would have phenomenal repercussions.

This blogpost will analyse this example of leaktivism, critically exploring its political and social implications and limitations of leaktivism, before offering some recommendations for a possible way forward.

The scale of the Panama Papers leak in comparison to previous leaks. Source: panamapapers.org

Political implications:

Nearly five years later, the legal and social repercussions have been minimal. In regards to the former dilemma, the difficulty is that, as stated on the Panama papers website, “It’s legal, and that’s the problem” (Panama Papers, 2020). The latter dilemma is discussed in the following section.

So far, political implications have included the resignation of Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson (with the possible future destabilizing of more governments); fines totalling 20 million euros respectively, for three companies affiliated with law firm Mossack Fonseca (Obermaier, et al., 2020); global investigations into money laundering and tax fraud; Calls for the formation of comprehensive registries for owners of financial assets, and for further reforms to combat tax evasion and tax fraud (Pia & Leandro, 2016).

The structure of the Panama Papers leak. Source: panamapapers.org

Social implications:

While proponents of leaktivism often refer to it as a “radical act of transparency”, it could be argued that in order to be truly radical, the act of transparency must be voluntary, and not ex- post. While such leaks are praised for facilitating a Habermasian style global public sphere (Brevini, et al., 2013, p. 58), as discovered by Assange, “people [are] not interested in the material released online without a professional interpretation” (Assange, 2010). Hence, in order to mobilise enough engagement to have adequate socio-political impact, leaktivism relies on mass media, possibly threatening both the radical and transparent aspects of its “radical transparency”, and hence its longevity as a tool for socio-political transformation (Brevini, et al., 2013, p. 49).

My thoughts on a possible way forward:

Some believe the Panama Papers leak could result in the “global professionalization of leaktivism”.  (White, 2016). What should this look like? I would suggest a move towards “deliberative transparency, which provides opportunities for meaningful public participation and consultation” (Tienhaara, 2020). Whistle-blowers, the media, the general public and civil society should form an alliance which creates room for voluntary, ex-ante transparency in conjunction with accountability. In regards to the revelations unveiled by the Panama Papers leak, we need to implement clear policies that make these acts of corruption illegal, backed up with simultaneous global institutional and governmental upheaval, otherwise leaktivism and “radical transparency” are at risk of becoming mere buzzwords- an edgy way of describing public naming and shaming. Currently, it would seem that the statement of Secretary Robert Gates in response to the Wikileaks scandal is also relevant for the Panama papers leak: “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? [Or in this case, global governance] I think fairly modest.”  (Benkler, 2011)  

References

Assange, J., 2010. Zunguzungu. [Online]
Available at: https://zunguzungu.wordpress.com/2010/12/12/julian-assange-in-berkeley/
[Accessed 12 March 2021].

Benkler, Y., 2011. A Free, Irresponsible Press: WikiLeaks and the Battle over the Soul of the Networked Fourth Estate. forthcoming Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review.

Brevini, B., Hintz, A. & McCurdy, P., 2013. Beyond WikiLeaks : Implications for the Future of Communications. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Obermaier, F., Obermayer, B., Wormer, V. & Jaschensky, W., 2020. All You Need To Know About The Panama Papers. [Online]
Available at: https://panamapapers.org/all-you-need-to-know-about-the-panama-papers
[Accessed 28 February 2021].

Panama Papers, 2020. Panama Papers. [Online]
Available at: https://panamapapers.org/cdfanb-panama-papers
[Accessed 28 February 2021].

Pia, H. & Leandro, A., 2016. The implications of the Panama Papers. [Online]
Available at: http://bruegel.org/2016/04/the-implications-of-the-panama-papers/
[Accessed 1 March 2021].

Tienhaara, K., 2020. Beyond accountability: alternative rationales for transparency in global trade politics. Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, 22(1), pp. 112-124.

White, M., 2016. The Panama Papers: leaktivism’s coming of age. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/commentisfree/2016/apr/05/panama-papers-leak-activism-leaktivism
[Accessed 28 February 2021].

2 Comments

  1. Radical transparency is nonexistence and even impossible, but it does not mean I support hidden darkness. I think transparency is a matter of degree. Is radical transparency really good? What if those state secrets are leaked to other countries? Besides, not every citizen has good political qualities. For many professional issues, public cannot see the whole situation. Giving citizens more information to monitor does not mean achieving the desired results, because many people only think in their own self-interest. In addition, politicians are likely to adjust their behaviour and pander to public opinion based on the degree of transparency. But we do have a right to know what is going on in the country, otherwise it would be a country of politicians.

    I think the most fundamental problem lies in the people, because of their own desire to do corrupt things. And these things cannot be resolved by publicly. Because the government can say I do give you all the information, and at the same time create more stringent censorship to remove the information. For example, Panama Papers has exposed the corruption of Chinese political figures, but in fact these people’s interests have not been damaged too much, and many people do not even know these things, because Panama Papers has become a banned word, you cannot search on Chinese websites, and even some articles discussed in obscure ways were deleted.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting take on leaktivism. A lack of interpretation of the leaked info and the (traditional) mass media’s limited temporality may prevent the leak from being a meaningful opportunity for public engagement. Also, the “radicality” of such transparency lies in the fact that the way it intends to challenge power has reached beyond the limits of representative democracy. It’s not the transparency that the public – nor “John Doe” – would have asked for: the leaks has unleashed a series of consequences that are beyond control. Nonetheless, the leaks have provided an opportunity to take into account both the construction of a less radical mechanism of transparency and a stronger anti-corruption system.

    Liked by 1 person

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