Bombshell Data Leak Ties World Leaders To Offshore Holdings, Triggers Crucial Conversation

The "Panama Papers" sent shockwaves around the world.

On Sunday afternoon, German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung released the game-changing "Panama Papers" in collaboration with 100 news organizations and 400 journalists in 80 different countries. The data set consists of 11.5 million documents from Mossack Fonseca, the fourth-largest provider of offshore financial services in the world. NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden called it the "biggest leak in the history of data journalism" on Twitter. 

Amidst the documents is evidence showing how 140 politicians, athletes, and public figures around the world (including 12 current and former world leaders) hid their money by funneling it through offshore bank accounts. Companies cited in the documents have been linked to everything from the bombing of Syria to athletes' alleged tax evasion. 

"The data provides rare insights into a world that can only exist in the shadows," Süddeutsche Zeitung said in its report on the leak. "It proves how a global industry led by major banks, legal firms, and asset management companies secretly manages the estates of the world's rich and famous."

The papers connect the president of Ukraine, the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, and the king of Saudi Arabia to offshore holdings. Some of the files allegedly "document some $2 billion in transactions secretly shuffled through banks and shadow companies by associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin," according to The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists' website

A video of Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson walking out of an interview after being questioned about a company called Wintris Inc. has gone viral. According to Gunnlaugsson, the company, which was hosted in the British Virgin Islands, has been fully declared to the Icelandic tax authorities. He was named as a co-owner in the Panama Papers.

"We can't permit this," Iceland's former finance minister Steingrímur Sigfússon told The Guardian. "Iceland would simply look like a banana republic. No one is saying he used his position as prime minister to help this offshore company, but the fact is you shouldn't leave yourself open to a conflict of interest. And nor should you keep it secret."

But potentially more headline-worthy than the offshore holdings' vast and secret webs are the victims of their existence. In Uganda, the Panama Papers reveal that a company interested in buying an oil field paid Mossack Fonseca to help it evade $400 million in taxes. $400 million is more than the Ugandan government's annual health budget. Meanwhile, one in three of the country's citizens live on less than $1.25 a day.

The papers are a landmark reminder that good journalism can hold even the wealthiest, most powerful people in the world responsible for their actions and help protect those most at risk. Their release was a bombshell — one that will hopefully get people talking.

Dennis Grombkowski / Getty Images.