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Panama Papers: What happened next?

Panama Papers

This year saw the release of the biggest leak of documents in history, when the Panama Papers were made public.

Eleven million documents were leaked from one of the world's most secretive companies, Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. They revealed in detail how parts of the offshore industry work.

We asked you what stories over the last 12 months you wanted to hear more about and in response many of you asked - what happened as a result of the Panama Papers?

So we spoke to the journalists who brought the story to the world.

What was the immediate fallout?

The first casualty was the Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, who resigned only days after the leaks showed he and his wife owned an offshore company that he had not declared on entering parliament.

Other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, addressed their countries to denounce the leaks and any allegations of being linked to money laundering.

In the UK, it caused political embarrassment for then-Prime Minister David Cameron, who admitted that his family had benefited from a legal offshore fund set up by his late father, Ian.

Authorities in the US and countries in Europe and Asia launched investigations into whether their rules were breached by those named in the leak.

Through it all, Mossack Fonseca has maintained it operates beyond reproach and has never been charged with wrongdoing.

How did it happen?

Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier are the two journalists at the heart of the leaks.

One night in 2014, Mr Obermayer was looking after his sick children when he received a message.

"Interested in data?" it said.

That data turned out to be millions of documents from Mossack Fonseca and the shell companies it sets up for wealthy people. The whistleblowers called themselves John Doe and their identity remains secret.

The journalists received hundreds of files a day and were soon overwhelmed with information from hundreds of thousands of offshore companies. They involved an international journalists' network and teams of reporters from around the world, including the BBC.

What do they think?

Eight months on from the publishing and broadcasting of the Panama Papers, what do they think it has achieved?

"We, together with the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), did a follow-up," Mr Obermaier told the BBC.

"We found out in 79 countries around the world there have been inquiries, 6,500 taxpayers and companies are being investigated globally and Mossack Fonseca have had to close nine offices. They have even put down their sign boards at their headquarters in Panama."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier

Mr Obermaier said the Panama Papers had shown how the offshore world could be used to help aid terrorism.

"It is striking for me that Europol found 3,469 probable matches between their own files and the Panama Papers - 116 between them on a project on Islamic terrorism alone."

Mr Obermayer agrees and said the leak had revealed that the offshore world was not only a place for rich people to avoid taxes. He said the Panama Papers showed the secrecy of shell companies could be used to hide criminal activity.

"I wasn't shocked that rich people use offshore to dodge taxes. I was shocked that there were so many crimes. I think the vast amount of offshore companies are used because someone wants to hide something."

Mr Obermayer argues there have been concrete changes as a result of the leak's publication.

"A lot has changed, in Germany. Our finance minister just introduced a new 'Panama Law' (requiring citizens to declare if they are using a shell company) and Panama itself is more open for change now.

"Some countries have announced registers for beneficial owners and others are also arguing for that for the first time ever.

"The pressure on tax havens is as high as never before and the Panama Papers have done that. They have directed the spotlight at the problem.

"But still, what hasn't changed is that the very industry that helps tax dodgers is still alive and kicking. They have huge influence, huge power, huge lobby groups. We don't see the end of offshore - but we do see that offshore is shrinking."

A potential solution?

Both journalists argue for a global register of beneficial owners to end tax secrecy. A beneficial owner is the person who has significant control of a company and its profits.

Richard Brooks, Private Eye journalist and author of The Great Tax Robbery is more pessimistic than the Panama Papers journalists.

"Whatever register you have, you would somehow have to police it," he said.

"You need law enforcement having sufficient resources to be able to investigate it. The serious money launderers and criminals would be able to make something up.

Image copyright Reuters

"The Panama Papers did give efforts to open up tax havens a bit of a boost, but it was not enough and there is evidence already of some backsliding. Britain's own tax havens, for example, will not open up the ownership of their shell companies to the public.

"We know that these territories are ill-equipped to police any international rules on information exchange imposed on them so, until they are completely transparent, we will be a long way from resolving the tax haven problem."

Attempts to establish transparency are being pushed back. For example, the EU has had to compromise on its plan for a public register of beneficial ownership after resistance from various member states.

The effectiveness of the measures being taken across the world as a result of the Panama Papers is still open to challenge.

Produced by Patrick Evans, UGC & Social News Hub

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