Panama Papers Whistleblower: “The Russian Government Wants To See Me Dead”

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DER SPIEGEL: How satisfied are you with the impact of the leak?

Doe: I am astounded with the outcome of the Panama Papers. What ICIJ accomplished was unprecedented, and I am extremely pleased, and even proud, that major reforms have taken place as a result of the Panama Papers. The fact that there have been subsequent journalistic collaborations of similar scale is also a real triumph. Sadly, it is still not enough. I never thought that releasing one law firm’s data would solve global corruption full stop, let alone change human nature. Politicians must act. We need publicly accessible corporate registries in every jurisdiction from the British Virgin Islands to Anguilla to the Seychelles to Labuan to Delaware. Now. And if you hear resistance, that sound you hear is the sound of a politician who must be sacked.

DER SPIEGEL: Since 2016, thousands of Panama Papers stories have been published. Are there any you think the world still needs to see?

Doe: There are so many untold stories. One that comes to mind is a trust with yellow paper checks that was likely set up for a drug cartel by a Colombian consulting firm, in which a large American Bank appears to have allowed direct use of its correspondent bank account with a bank in Panama. Payees’ names were typed on these checks with a typewriter. To call this arrangement unusual would be an understatement – they might as well have issued checks made out of actual red flags.

DER SPIEGEL: Edward Snowden once mentioned your case as being the best-case scenario for a whistleblower: You created a big impact – and are still unknown and free. Is that also how you see your role?

Doe: I count myself as incredibly lucky that everything has worked out as well as it has, even if nothing is perfect. Remaining unknown has had the obvious benefit of keeping me relatively safe, but there has been a cost as well, which is that I have not been able to keep the issue in the public eye the way that Edward Snowden did regarding the NSA wiretapping revelations. Of course, he paid with his freedom to some degree. There are always tradeoffs.

DER SPIEGEL: What has your leak taught you about whistleblowing?

Doe: I would say the most important thing is that my example shows that it is possible, although perhaps rare, to make a major difference and still maintain a good life. But it takes a lot of work and a lot of luck to stay one step ahead.

DER SPIEGEL: Is there anything you would recommend to potential whistleblowers?

Doe: Telling the truth about sensitive matters is never easy. I would say that an underappreciated factor is just how difficult it is to keep a level head. Whether you are talking to journalists or government authorities, be prepared for everything to move very slowly. It’s important to just breathe and find other things to think about from time to time.

DER SPIEGEL: If you could turn back time, would you blow the whistle again?

Doe: In a heartbeat.

How the Interview Came About

It has been seven years since Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier had their first contact with the person who calls themself “John Doe.” At the time, both were working as journalists for the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper. The anonymous source had offered the data leak to the editors. It was the beginning of a major investigative project. In April 2016, more than 100 media organizations around the world published their research and reporting on the secret tax havens of the rich and powerful as “The Panama Papers.” The revelations led to the resignations of government leaders and ministers, and enabled authorities to collect more than $1.3 billion in fines and taxes. Six years later, “John Doe” again contacted Obermayer and Obermaier, who now work for DER SPIEGEL. The anonymous source granted their first ever interview to the journalists. Because “John Doe” does not want to reveal their gender or identity, Obermayer and Obermaier conducted the interview using an encrypted internet connection. A computer voice was all that could be heard. “It was an absurd situation, but it fit the crazy research,” Obermayer says.

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