IT is only natural that the media here in the Philippines and in other places around the globe would react with excitement to the revelations this week in the so-called “Panama Papers” – a massive leak of about 11.5 million documents from one of the world’s largest offshore law firms, Panama-based Mossack Fonseca, which provides legal and other management services for investors and businesses registering corporations in the British Virgin Islands and other “tax havens’ around the world.
The excitement, of course, is caused by the names of celebrities, political figures, and other famous and notorious people among the thousands in the treasure trove of information. The database, which was organized and posted online by the International Center for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), shows connections between offshore corporations and such notables as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson.
Here in the Philippines, almost as soon as the ICIJ website was updated, local headlines revealed that among the 572 names from this country on the extensive list were those of Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos and her sons, and Senator JV Ejercito.
What was not disclosed in the accompanying stories, however, is the rather important fact that the information about the offshore holdings of the Marcos family and Ejercito is at least three years old. Back in 2013, another, smaller leak of data exposed much of the same information contained in the Mossack Fonseca database; at the time, the Marcos and Ejercito disclosures caused a minor controversy that had no particular resolution and was quickly forgotten. The information about those personalities contained in the latest data release has not changed, and in fact, most of the entire database, despite being the largest leak of its kind in history (at 2.6 terabytes of data, it is roughly 1,600 times larger than the entire database of WikiLeaks), is only current up to the year 2010, a fact that ICIJ took care to state clearly.
As several financial experts have pointed out to us, offshore corporations do have some legitimate, legal uses, and the existence of an offshore corporation six years ago is not prima facie evidence of wrongdoing on the part of its owners or shareholders. Our experts do point out that the range of proper applications of an offshore entity is rather narrow, and that various forms of illicit activity – money-laundering and tax evasion being the most common – are facilitated by it, and are often the intended purpose. None of that, however, can be determined without further investigation.
Sensationalizing the news by not being clear about when the subject information was first learned, not being clear about what the information actually means – in this case very little, without further research – and by knowingly permitting or even encouraging unsupported assumptions of wrongdoing makes for entertaining reading, but does not serve the public. If illegal or unethical activities using offshore companies are being carried out by Gov. Marcos, Sen. Ejercito, or anyone else from the Philippines, those activities need to be stopped and the perpetrators held accountable. But these objectives are not advanced in any way by sensationalism.
We here at The Manila Times will be examining and following up on the data over the coming days and weeks, not to attract attention to ourselves with salacious headlines, but to inform the public and, if the facts warrant, hold our public officials and business leaders to account. Since the truth is often stranger than fiction and is almost always more interesting, we are confident that the real story, whatever it is, will certainly be entertaining enough.