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4 open data lessons from reporting the Panama Papers in Africa

Web Foundation · October 7, 2016

In March this year we reported how our open data team in Africa has rolled up its sleeves to find out how open data can change lives for the better on the continent.

One of the projects supported was the data investigations of the African Network of Centers for Investigative Reporting (ANCIR). They coordinated and developed investigations in Africa centred on what is commonly referred to as the Panama Papers: 11.5 million leaked files from the Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca exposing the offshore holdings of world leaders, links to global scandals and details of hidden financial dealings. Web Foundation provided funding to support the project, with the goal of carrying out action research that will help our community better understand the role of open data in investigative journalism, and how we can make collaboration more effective.

ANCIR, and its investigative lab (iLab), deployed and supported a squadron of investigative journalists to publish 50 articles in more than 20 African countries. ANCIR made sure that African journalists weren’t left behind as the investigations into the secrets buried in the data unfolded. Unable to attend a global event in Europe intended to introduce journalists to the Panama Papers and to formulate the overall procedure for the investigations, ANCIR’s iLab team convened African journalists in Johannesburg. This ensured that African journalists and editors were able to acquire the same knowledge and to provide a further edge in parsing the data.

What was unique about the Panama Papers from an African perspective is that it was the first time that a major transnational investigation was collectively represented by journalists from within the African countries being reported on. It allowed for Africans to direct the lens, write the words and hold wrongdoers to account in a way that is relevant for the region. Whatever the outcome of the Panama Papers, African journalists defined the problem they saw in the leaks they analysed.

The Panama Papers project also surfaced some valuable insights on open data:

  1. Leaks are good but not the solution – data must be open, official and public. Data leaks such as the Panama Papers help us access information that should be in the public domain but isn’t. Opening up vast amounts of data to public scrutiny allows more eyes to examine and expose corruption that has remained hidden. Opening up the data also makes possible a more robust process of data validation as multiple perspectives may be brought to bear on the motivations behind the release of the data and on its veracity as a reliable representation of reality.
  1. Journalists are going transnational. Most companies operate transnationally. But until very recently most media houses and projects operated at a national level. Yet in a globalised world, illicit and illegal activities often take place through networks spread across multiple countries. The mafia in Italy, for instance, operated in several African countries using Asian banks; and Beny Steinmetz used a host of tax havens under the political umbrella of the UK functioning as a vast corporate shield against scrutiny. These stories require journalists to analyse the data globally, working together to expose the bigger picture in a coherent fashion and on a transnational basis. In so doing, they may produce content that informs and persuades increasingly interconnected audiences to apply pressure.
  1. Trust and integrity are key for collaborative journalism. The Panama Papers witnessed a massive collaborative effort across the globe, and has been described as the broadest and most technologically challenging journalistic project ever undertaken. Data journalism is undoubtedly a team game that relies inherently on trust and integrity rather than money or flashy tools. Analysts and experts help do the heavy lifting, and the journalists on the ground weave a compelling narrative supported by the data and with the assurance of legal protection. The volume and complexity of data requires the journalist to depend on a team with ever more diverse and specialised skills, including other journalists with sector-specific knowledge and expertise (e.g. the oil industry or organised crime).
  1. Technology is 5% – human behaviour 95%. Technology enables access to leaks but it is just 5% of the solution. Human behaviour – how the information is investigated, attributed, inputted, retained and shared – makes the biggest difference. This speaks to both the process of investigation and the way in which relationships between sources and colleagues are protected. By opening global doors, technology has also paved the way for vulnerabilities that could negatively affect users. Our behaviour affects us and the safety and security of others who place their trust in us.

Human rights depend on governments raising and spending tax revenues wisely to improve the lives of all citizens. However, all too often resources allocated to the few and away from the many who are most in need. Such discrimination needs to be document and made transparent. Data can often tell us the basics: the who, what, where, when and why of financial transactions. Investigative reporters can use leaked and open data to provide answers to these crucial questions, and to mobilise citizens and institutions to hold the offenders to account. The Panama Papers in Africa project has made a small, African-led contribution to increasing accountability on the continent.

The full research paper and lessons learned from this project can be found here. Follow us on Twitter @webfoundation for updates!

This project is supported by the Open Data for Development (OD4D) program, a partnership funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the World Bank, United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID), and Global Affairs Canada (GAC).

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  1. Marc

    July 12, 2018

    It is important to mobilize journalists, but now that everybody can be a communicator, the impact of journalist is getting narrow.


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