Our readers in the Cayman Islands may not have heard of the “International Consortium of Journalists,” but by now are certainly familiar with their work. The “Panama Papers” and “Paradise Papers” exposés generated headlines around the world and garnered prestigious awards, including last year’s Pulitzer Prize.
The series of investigative reports – based on troves of documents obtained surreptitiously from international law firms – have been hailed as examples of impact-oriented journalism in the tradition of Upton Sinclair and his exposure of abuses in the American meatpacking industry in the early 1900s.
Amid a near-universal chorus of self-congratulatory applause from within the media industry, we at the Cayman Compass have remained with our hands folded politely in our laps. As a news organization based in one of these so-called “nefarious tax havens,” we dissent from our journalistic brethren and, further, deplore and condemn the practice of publishing stolen privileged documents and correspondence between law firms and their clients. Appleby, a victim of the latest theft, appropriately is suing.
One of the most shocking aspects of the reports on the Panama Papers – and the Paradise Papers – is the dearth of demonstrable illegal activity that has been uncovered. After all, the troves of information turned over to the ICIJ included decades’ worth of documents on the innermost workings of sprawling law firms Mossack Fonseca (in Panama) and Appleby (based in Bermuda). Apart from hypocrisy by some political figures, and maybe some new details on questionable activity that had already been in the public domain, much of the investigatory reported consisted of “outing” celebrities, wealthy individuals and organizations as innocuous clients in the global financial system.
Someone needs to remind the ICIJ and its media members that there is a right of privacy central to the most basic concept of human rights. Certainly, privileged communications between lawyers and their clients, or priests and their penitents, fall into that category.
In our opinion, the most secretive, outrageous and underreported part of the story is the so-called “leak” – or as Appleby’s Global Managing Partner Michael O’Connell phrased it, “an illegal theft” – of the documents in the first place.
At a panel including two key figures from the ICIJ at the recent OffshoreAlert Conference in Miami, former Bermuda Finance Minister Bob Richards pointed out the inherent inconsistency of the ICIJ’s position – that it had positioned itself as the arbiter of the privacy rights of the hundreds of individuals and companies appearing in the “purloined papers,” but at the same time had elected to protect the privacy of the source from whom it had obtained the documents.
The ICIJ panelists responded that exposing the “secrecy” of the offshore world was in the “public interest” (the most murky and subjective of phrases), but somehow the source of the documents was not. Such hypocrisy is nothing short of stunning.
For the record, we’re certainly interested in how – and from whom – the documents were obtained, and we’re sure we are joined by Mossack Fonseca, Appleby, and all the people whose private affairs were exposed.
In the absence of illegality being exposed, the ICIJ and others have justified the publication of the law firms’ information by falling back on the position that, somehow by its very nature, the offshore (and by extension global) financial system is unjust. In other words, even though it’s not illegal – it’s immoral.
This prejudiced opinion is as inaccurate as it is unfair, not only to the law firms and their clients, but also to the thousands of financial services professionals in Cayman and elsewhere who have undergone a top-tier level of education, possess any number of internationally recognized certifications, and have devoted their careers to preventing and rooting out precisely the sort of corrupt or illegal activity the ICIJ has failed to unearth.