The widespread anticipation – and absolute dread, if you expected your name to be in there – surrounding the imminent release of the Pandora Papers was palpable on Sunday. While the world looked forward to the revelations, let us be fair that almost all of us kind of knew that the obvious reference to the Greek mythical artefact Pandora’s Box would be almost inevitable, once the investigation into the leaks was made public.
Homer remains the most recognisable name in ancient Greek. That makes Hesiod – the creator of the myth of the Pandora’s Box – the most notable victim of Homer’s fame. Hesiod’s didactic poem Works and Days features the myth of Pandora who, out of her curiosity, opens a container that had been in the care of her husband. The unwarranted, albeit inquisitive, the opening of the box released physical and emotional curses upon mankind. Over time, the varied depictions of the story shifted the focus from Pandora to the contents of the box itself.
Nowadays, the mythological legend is used as an idiom that, according to the Oxford Dictionary, refers to “a process that once begun generates many complicated problems”. Merriam-Webster’s definition goes like this: “Anything that looks ordinary but may produce unpredictable harmful results can thus be called Pandora’s box”.
Earlier on Sunday, the Pandora Papers were released after a historic, worldwide journalistic collaboration led by the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in Washington, DC. The Pandora Papers feature leaked information from 14 different offshore service providers that operate in 38 different jurisdictions around the globe. The records date back to the 1970s, but the majority of the documents detail the inner workings of this shadow financial world from 1996 to 2020.
One way to look at this exposé is that the stunning Pandora Papers revelations are not really that remarkable, given the series of the whistle-blower-led investigation during the past decade. It all began with the release of sensitive diplomatic cables in 2010 by Wikileaks that caused a huge diplomatic storm across the globe. However, the first meaningful insight into the previously opaque financial world was the 2012-13 offshore leaks – which largely went under the radar – followed by the Luxembourg leaks in 2014 and the Swiss leaks in 2015.
What really opened the phrasal Pandora’s Box were the 2016 Panama Papers. The Panama revelations were the worst crisis to hit the political elite across the globe; the proverbial opening of floodgates. More importantly, Panama Papers did what the urban meaning of the idiom Pandora’s Box states: It rattled the already dwindling belief in the political system and resulted in political casualties from Iceland, Pakistan, Spain, Mongolia, and beyond. The Panama leaks were prophetic in a sense that as much as what the leaked documents revealed, they told a whole lot more about what to expect in the future; how rotten the financial and political system had become. It was not a matter of expectancy and the consequent shock – what the future leaks would unearth – anymore. It was more about when and how.
As much as it is pertinent to argue how these leaks indirectly and partially led to the rise of right-wing saviours across the global political spectrum, it is not the point here. The main argument here is that the series of investigations into the leaked documents over the past decade – the latest of which is the Pandora Papers – only signifies the extent of the moral and financial corruption and the abuse of power, not the vices themselves. Even before the first leaks, the wretched of the earth – which make up about 70-80 per cent of the world – had an idea who was largely responsible for the ills of the world i.e., the political and financial elite of the world. It would be perfectly appropriate here to stop and say that history will never be able to show enough gratitude to Frantz Fanon for giving it the term ‘Wretched of the Earth’ and what it entails. Moving on, in that context, the Panama Papers episode – the prequel to the Pandora Papers – was the first significant sneak peek into the exclusively macabre world of the few of the wealthy and powerful parasites.
Here is how we got to the point where an exposé of Pandora Papers’ magnitude became just another – albeit substantial – investigation into the dirty secrets of the wealthy and powerful.
The offshore leaks 2012-13
The offshore leaks were considered to be the biggest exposé of the international tax fraud ever. The 2.5 million leaked documents only amounted to about a tenth of the size of the Panama Papers when the ICIJ and its news partners went public in November 2012 and April 2013. Who leaked the data? The ICIJ cited “two financial service providers, a private bank in Jersey and the Bahamas corporate registry” as the sources of the leak.
The documents largely revealed the names of over 120,000 companies and trusts in hideaways such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cook Islands. Several politicians, government officials, and their families from Russia, China, Azerbaijan, Canada, Thailand, Mongolia, and Pakistan were named. The Philippines’ late strongman Ferdinand Marcos’ family also featured. At the time, the ICIJ specifically pointed out that the leaks did not necessarily accuse the personnel of committing illegal actions.
Luxembourg leaks 2014
LuxLeaks, as they were called, were another extensive ICIJ investigation that hit the news in November 2014. The main focus of the probe was the professional services company PricewaterhouseCoopers and how it was pivotal to multinational companies scoring hundreds of favourable tax rulings in Luxembourg between 2002 and 2010. Some of the biggest corporate names such as Pepsi, IKEA, AIG, GlaxoSmithKline, Northern & Shell, and Deutsche Bank were among those accused of getting favourable verdicts. The investigators found that the multinationals corporations channelled money through Luxembourg, sometimes at tax rates of less than 1%. The practice saved them billions and the gall of the corporates was signified by the fact that over 1,600 companies were registered to one address in Luxembourg.
Walt Disney and Skype also came under fire for funnelling hundreds of millions of dollars in profits through Luxembourg subsidiaries; however, Disney and Skype and the other firms denied any wrongdoing.
A former PricewaterhouseCoopers colleagues Antoine Deltour and Raphael Halet along with journalist Edouard Perrin were credited with the leaks. The trio was charged in Luxembourg but escaped with minor punishments. Perrin was exonerated.
Swiss leaks 2015
This was the first ICIJ investigation into leaked documents involving hundreds of journalists from 45 countries. French-Italian software engineer Hervé Falciani leaked the data for the Swiss leaks that went public in February 2015. Falciani began passing on information on HSBC Private Bank (Suisse) to French authorities from 2008 onwards, which was then passed on to other relevant governments. Falciani was indicted in Switzerland held in detention in Spain for a while. He was later released and now resides in France.
The leaks uncovered HSBC Private Bank’s dealings in Switzerland, a country famous for banking secrecy. The leaked documents linked over 100,000 individuals and legal entities from more than 200 countries to the subsidiary of the banking giant.
The ICIJ probe named individuals close to the regimes of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, former Tunisian President Ben Ali, and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
The ICIJ said that HSBC had profited from “arms dealers, bag men for Third World dictators, traffickers in blood diamonds and other international outlaws”. The investigation added that the bank had served “those close to discredited regimes” and “clients who had been unfavourably named by the United Nations”.
HSBC later confessed to the immoral “compliance culture and standards of due diligence”
Panama Papers 2016
This was the biggest of them all, the trailblazer, the watershed moment. Panama’s 2.6 terabytes of data may have been smaller in data size to Sunday’s Pandora Papers but it sent shockwaves across the globe. Panama leaks carried 1,500 times more data than the Wikileaks dump in 2010.
An anonymous source supplied the reporters at the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in 2015 and supplied them with the encrypted documents from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. The now-defunct sold anonymous offshore companies to help its clientele hide its business transaction.
Süddeutsche Zeitung eventually asked for assistance from the ICIJ. After extensive collaboration with about 100 other partner news organisations and over a year of scrutiny, the Panama Papers were published on 3 April 2016. The database of documents went online a month later.
The probe named associates of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and their meticulous shuffling of cash around the globe. Icelandic Prime Minster quit the office while his Pakistani counterpart was ousted by the country’s Supreme Court. The leaks exposed the financial dealings of a dozen serving and former world leaders, over 120 politicians and public officials along with numerous billionaires, celebrities, and sports stars were exposed.
Paradise Papers 2017
By the time Paradise Papers were published, it had ceased to be a surprise how the wealthy and influential entities went about their business. The large chuck of leaked documents came from offshore law firm Appleby. The documents also featured corporate registries in 19 tax jurisdictions. The identity of the source remains unknown but followed the route of the Panama Papers. German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung received the 13.4 million files, which the newspaper shared with the ICIJ. The ensuing investigation involved nearly 100 other media organisations in 67 countries.
The documents revealed investments and tax avoidance schemes. The leaks exposed investments by Queen’s private estate and tax avoidance by three stars from the sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys. The Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton was accused of avoiding tax on his $22.48m luxury jet. The UK’s Prince Charles was also named for campaigning to alter climate-change agreements without disclosing that his private estate held an offshore financial interest in what he was promoting.
FinCEN Files 2020
The FinCEN Files largely focused on the abject failure of major global banks to put a stop to money laundering and financial crimes. Published in September 2020, the documents named the UK as the primary weak link in the financial system.
A branch of the US Treasury Department, namely the Financial Crimes Enforcement Agency, or FinCEN, was at the centre of the leaks. The documents were actually over 2,000 suspicious activity reports that several financial institutions had sent to FinCEN. There were about 17,641 other records that were gathered using Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and other sources.
The ICIJ, in collaboration with 400 journalists, conducted the investigation.
Pandora Papers: “Panama on steroids”
In the aftermath of the release of Pandora Papers, the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), Gerard Ryle, said that the Pandora papers will have a greater impact than previous leaks. He said that the probe was made more significant by it being released in the middle of a pandemic where governments have had to borrow extraordinary sums that will eventually burden ordinary taxpayers.
Ryle said: “This is the Panama papers on steroids. It’s broader, richer, and has more detail.”
While Ryle makes a very valid point about the extensive nature of the Pandora Papers, the argument remains that it is just an extension of what the world had an idea before the Panama Papers and how the Panama leaks affirmed those suspicions. Panama remains the real milestone.
Just like Hesiod – the creator of the myth of the Pandora’s Box – the Pandora Papers leaks, regardless of their damning extent and significance, will remain in the shadow of the Panama Papers. The world will always remember the legend of Homer – and the Panama Papers – more than Hesiod and his Pandora’s Box.