“This is John Doe. Interested in data?”: An Excerpt from “The Panama Papers”


In early 2015, Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, German journalists working with the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, received a message from a “John Doe.” ”Interested in data?,” the message asked. “We're very interested, of course,” Obermayer replied. The data that followed turned out to be one of the biggest leaks in history. The source had access to the records of a Panamanian law firm and corporate service provider, Mossack Fonseka. The firm specialised in creating offshore entities for its clients—wealthy individuals or prominent public officials from across the globe. Though such business entities are not always illegal, the leak revealed that they were used for illegal purposes—tax evasion, fraud, and evading international sanctions, among others. The Papers illustrated how the rich were able to keep their personal financial information private and beyond the reach of the law. 

Obermayer and Obermaier shared their information with various publications, resulting in a year-long investigation into the data, spanning 80 countries. By the end, the Papers amounted to 11.5 million documents detailing the information for more than 214,000 offshore companies. The Panama Papers leak broke in April 2016, causing ripples across governments and organisations. Among the people named in the leaks were the Icelandic prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who later resigned his post; Ian Cameron, the father of the British prime minister David Cameron, and public figures such as the filmstar Amitabh Bachchan and the football player Lionel Messi.

In the following excerpt from the book, The Panama Papers, an account of the investigation into the leak, Obermayer recounts the day that “John Doe”—the whistleblower, who remains anonymous even to the journalists—first reached out to him, and how he and his colleague verified the data.

Bastian Obermayer is a journalist working with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Frederik Obermaier is a journalist working with German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Keywords: Panama Papers leak whistle-blower shell companies Mossack Fonseca