It had first begun with the message — anonymous, of course: “Hello. This is John Doe. Interested in data?”
The recipient, German newspaper reporter Bastian Obermayer, promptly responded that he was.
What followed was almost unimaginable: “Doe” began forwarding files that ultimately contained 11.5 million documents, four decades’ worth of digitized records from a Panamanian law firm that specializes in setting up offshore companies for wealthy clients.
The Doe data dump to Obermayer and his colleague Frederik Obermaier in 2014 eventually triggered a unique cooperative project among journalists around the world. The effort culminated when, in a coordinated release, dozens of news organizations began publishing stories about the Panama Papers.
The vast cache outlines how world leaders, celebrities and individuals have used offshore companies to shield their wealth from public disclosure, and in some cases possibly to avoid taxes or mask illegal activity.
The first wave of stories — the disclosures could go on for years — has already led Iceland’s Prime Minister to tender his resignation over revelations of his offshore holdings.
Among the thousands of people named in the documents are Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s family members, close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin, British Prime Minister David Cameron’s late father, Ian, and soccer superstar Lionel Messi. The news reports prompted President Obama, among others, to call for international tax reform.
More than a year after Doe first contacted them at their Munich-based newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung, Obermayer, 38, and Obermaier, 32, still have no idea who their source is or why he or she (or possibly they) came to them.
To protect Doe’s identity and safety, however, they remain purposely guarded about what they do know.
“We can’t disclose any numbers or times [of contact], of course, or if we are still in contact,” Obermayer said in an exchange of emails on 6 April. “But we have communicated a lot, through different ways, all encrypted. On some days, I chatted more with the source than with my wife. We had a lot to talk about.”