Hello Reddit,

over a year ago, an anonymous source contacted the Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and submitted encrypted internal documents from Mossack Fonseca, a Panamanian law firm that sells anonymous offshore companies around the world.

Ultimately, SZ acquired about 2.6 terabytes of data, making the leak the biggest that journalists had ever worked with. The source wanted neither financial compensation nor anything else in return, apart from a few security measures. The Süddeutsche Zeitung decided to analyze the data in cooperation with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). In the past 12 months, around 400 journalists from more than 100 media organizations in over 80 countries have taken part in researching the documents.

We are three of them, and very happy to finally be able to talk about the work we did in the last year!

For further information on the Panama Papers: http://panamapapers.sueddeutsche.de/en

Answering your questions today:

  • Frederik Obermaier, Investigative Reporter, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Twitter: @f_obermaier
  • Bastian Obermayer, Investigative Reporter, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Twitter: @b_obermayer
  • Vanessa Wormer, Data Journalist, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Twitter: @Remrow

Proof: https://twitter.com/SZ_Investigativ/status/720653066891104257?lang=de

If you have information for us, please contact us at investigativ[at]sz.de or via our PGP Key: http://pgp.mit.edu/pks/lookup?op=get&search=0xE98F78D8CC45D096

One small favor before we start: Due to legal matters and in order to protect our source, we might not be able to answer all of your questions. But we’ll try our best to give you a look behind the scenes and tell you how we worked on the Panama Papers.

EDIT: Frederik has to leave now but Bastian and Vanessa are still here to answer your questions!

EDIT 2: That was awesome! Now we have to go and eat pizza. Thank you for all these amazing questions, that was a lot of fun! We are going to check this subreddit again tomorrow, if we oversaw any major aspect we are going to figure out a way to reply on it later.

Comments: 3100 • Responses: 42  • Date: 

orangejulius2233 karma

Is there any information in there about Americans that would alter the course of the Presidential election? And if so—what is it/ who is it?

SZ_investigativ2536 karma

that would alter the course of the Presidential election?

As far as we know - no. But: we are still digging.

FatherDamo1953 karma

What data, in your opinion so far, has been the least reported on by mainstream media that has the largest consequences?

SZ_investigativ1491 karma

We think the most important stories of the leak got the attention they deserved. At least as far as we can see. But of course we can't overlook all the published stories in nearly 80 countries. Do you think there is a story that the media should have reported more on?

MockDeath1686 karma

When you guys saw the scope of what you were uncovering, did you worry that releasing information against powerful people would cause you issues?

SZ_investigativ2483 karma

Of course we were and still are worried. But we know that Germany is a pretty safe country for journalists. We are more concerned about our colleagues in other regions of the world, like Russia, Africa, Latin America...

DerMuenchner1378 karma

Thank you for your work.

I am wondering if you are planning to release the raw data ? If you black out private data ( passports, bank accounts ), you are probably not interfering with the privacy of those people.

SZ_investigativ2466 karma

Thank you for your question! We are not going to release the raw data and we have valid reasons to do so. The source decided to give the data to journalists and not, f.e., to Wikileaks. As journalists, we have to protect our source: We cant guarantee that there is no way for someone to find out who the source is with the data. Thats why we cant make the data public.

And as responsible journalists we also stick to certain ethical rules: You dont harm the privacy of people, who are not in the public eye. Blacking out private data is a task, that would require a lifetime of work - we have eleven million documents!

maarten4181147 karma

How did you decide which other news organisations to work with on the story? What was it like knowing about it for a year before anything was released?

SZ_investigativ1235 karma

How did you decide which other news organisations to work with on the story?

It took us quite some time to decide on that and we made these decisions together with the ICIJ. To trust the partners was extremely important for us. Thats why ICIJ firstly contacted partners we had already worked with.

It was less important for us how big the news outlet is. What mattered more was their expertise, their willingness to cooperate and their awareness for security issues. We also tried to have journalists from a lot of different countries on our team to make this a global project.

SZ_investigativ1342 karma

What was it like knowing about it for a year before anything was released?

Sometimes almost bizarre and often difficult. We work at a daily newspaper - to work on a story for that long amount of time was quite extraordinary. We almost didnt write anything in the last year!

And at the same time we were not able to talk about our work at all. Not with friends, not with co-workers, not with family. People even made fun of us cause we had to be so secretive.

At christmas, Bastians sister even joked if he was allowed to reveal his cookie recipe or if that was a secret as well...

(Bastian and Frederik)

halfcab894 karma

so when will you release the cookie recipe...

SZ_investigativ1744 karma

Sorry, some things have to be kept as a secret.... (Bastian)

Quizzelbuck830 karma

Any idea why there are practically speaking no high profile Americans subject to the panama papers leak? Do we suspect there is another company out there they must be using? Do we suspect any one specifically of harboring them? Or, are there americans subject to the panama leak most haven't heard of?

SZ_investigativ1066 karma

Mossack Fonseca did not focus on american clients, as they told AP recently.

Still, there were hundreds of Americans in the documents, but we did not find as many "high profile" ones as in other countries.

HonestPromo747 karma

Which celebrity involved shocked you the most? Also, how deep is Lionel Messi in trouble?

SZ_investigativ1142 karma

Also, how deep is Lionel Messi in trouble?

There is already a court case against Messi. The hearing was postponed after the Panama Papers got published because we found another shell company that Messi was involved in. So the prosecutor is going to look into that. So Messi was in trouble even before the PP, but the new revelations definitely didnt help him. But of course we dont know what the official prosecutors are going to decide.

halfcab624 karma

How does working on such a secretive project impact your personal lives? for instance what do you tell someone when they ask how your day at work has been, or what you've been working on.

SZ_investigativ1139 karma

We tried to be vague. And we tried to make our work sound as boring as possible, so that no one wants to ask anymore questions. It worked most of the time.

Balmarog502 karma

What's the most ridiculous thing you've found so far?

SZ_investigativ1270 karma

We had a really good laugh when we found out that Mossack Fonseca addressed some of his very secretive clients by code names like "Winnie Pooh" or "Harry Potter".

Sth like that: "I refer to a meeting with Harry Potter"


-Gareth-480 karma


I have a few questions for you:

  1. Does anyone else besides yourselves have a full copy of that data (eg the other 100 media organisations/400 journalists?), if so how would you stop one of them leaking the data to the world?
  2. I had wondered about the legitimacy of that data. Obviously some of it must be good otherwise we wouldn't have seen people resign over the leaks etc. How can you verify the authenticity of each article/document? How would we know if one of the stories that came out was fabricated or incorrect?
  3. Finally, how did you agree who was getting which stories or have you split the data up between everyone? If so how did that work? Did some media outlets think they should get more or better stories etc?


Edit: Missed 2 words!

SZ_investigativ541 karma

We cant comment on your first question since it concerns the safety of our data. And we already answered question two in a comment above.

Finally, how did you agree who was getting which stories or have you split the data up between everyone? If so how did that work? Did some media outlets think they should get more or better stories etc?

Really important question! All partners had access to the whole data-set. There was no division of stories or documents. Every journalist was free to report an anything they wanted. We also talked openly about our findings and shared them with each other.

celebratedmrk431 karma

Great work by your team.

Can you speak a little about your technology and how you are actually parsing through 2.6TB of data?

SZ_investigativ828 karma

Technically speaking the leaked data is unstructured, that means we had different file types - mails, .tiff and .jpg, .pdf,... - and the data had to be indexed systematically in order to make searching possible. Further, it was important to make pictures (scanned passports, contracts with signatures!) searchable. It's called OCR, optical character recognition. We at Süddeutsche Zeitung used the software Nuix (Thanks Nuix!). Further, the ICIJ set up a new database for all our partners. I think the most important thing was to enable all 400 journalists to search through the documents easily. They were also able to use "batch searching" techniques - so the journalist put names on a list and ran it through the data. I remember the day when ICIJ announced that nearly all the documents are searchable: That day we and our international partners had lots of great findings. (Vanessa)

Smooth_Talkin_Fucker345 karma

Fair play to you and all your colleagues for sharing this info with the world. My question is: when this information was given to you initially, what was your reaction? Were you worried it was all false and how difficult was it to verify the information? Thanks!

SZ_investigativ423 karma

We were thrilled and skeptical at the same time. But we were able to verify the parts of the data we reported on through various sources, f.e. court documents, public registries, former leaks and in the end also interviews.

MrMemorie258 karma

How do you deal with the people saying that this whole leak was plannend by western media to hurt Russia?

SZ_investigativ443 karma

We got over eleven million documents with thousands of stories in it. Why would someone leak this huge amount of data if he wants only a certain story to be published? He couldnt even be sure we would find this particular story!

MrCheddarCheese434 karma

"He." "He" couldn't even be sure we would find this particular story.

That narrows the whistleblower down to only 3.5 billion people. Get on the case, Reddit!

SZ_investigativ389 karma

We typed too quickly. Our bad. To be precise: He, she, it or they.

davec79247 karma

At the peak, how many people have had to dig through the source material to find things?

SZ_investigativ461 karma

It started with just the two of us, Bastian and Frederik. In May 2015 we were around 40 people worldwide and at the end of the year almost 400 people. And these were only the people who worked with the data itself. Each news outlet had a lot more staff that was working on different aspects of the story - like design, publishing or reporting on the ground, researching different aspects. (Bastian and Frederik)

kimluminati233 karma

How do you keep such a large story/break so quiet, especially with 400 people intimately digging through these documents? Absolutely fascinating!

SZ_investigativ609 karma

It really is fascinating! We are actually astonished how well it worked. We were quite sure that a couple of stories would leak before the official publishing date. That didnt happen. So I guess most of us sticked to the most important rule of our project: Shut up and encrypt.

CountVonTroll90 karma

a lot more staff that was working on different aspects of the story - like design, publishing or reporting on the ground

How informed were they? How did you brief the designers, for example? Was ist along the lines of "So, we need a nice graphic with Putin, the Icelandic PM, and a football player... Messi would be good."?

SZ_investigativ179 karma

At a certain point everybody involved with the project - such as the graphic designer Peter Hoffmann - had to use PGP-encryption. Imagine how difficult it was to educate an online-team that is used to save everything to top-secret Google drive ;). But we knew about the importance of the visual approach, thus we had to give them a general overview of the stories. (Vanessa)

marianoju211 karma

I understand you used Nuix to process, index, and analyze the 11.5 million documents totaling 2.6 terabyte of data. Carl Barron has stated that the initial indexing of the material started in September of 2015 and took about 2 weeks (https://youtu.be/31suMWkgdo4?t=1m45s), and journalists started then with their work to “connect the dots”. What other software did you use? What was your working procedure with hundreds of collaborators? Was every journalist free to follow their own lead? What rules were set / incentives provided for journalists to put work into the project and prevent free-riding?

SZ_investigativ204 karma

The ICIJ has a great data unit and they are specialized in building searchable databases for all the partners. You should take a look at this presentation about the ICIJ's "leak refinery": https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1eBFXwm24frHZAbBgKXLPkxH4o2NEWJlDHQJA6_I4784/edit#slide=id.p

ChristopherClarkKent197 karma

Thanks for doing this and your work. On the TV show Lanz you mentioned that Edward Snowden broke the news before you could. Do you know who of your colleagues told him and if him tweeting about it was an accident?

SZ_investigativ353 karma

We don't have a clue. But as a former NSA-employer, Snowden certainly has his methods. ;)

Chilly_Fart150 karma

Are you worried in any way about your future careers?

SZ_investigativ363 karma

Happy cake day!

And no, we are not really worried about our future careers. Is there any reason we should? Is there anything we don't know??? If yes, please tell us!

brainstrust145 karma

Do you know why SZ newspaper was chosen in particular as opposed to say Wikileaks?

SZ_investigativ348 karma

We dont want to speculate. But obviously the source wanted the data to be handled by journalists.

hu_shih131 karma

  1. As investigative journalists, is there data or information that you do not understand, and require knowledge of basic finance in order to sort through the Panama Papers?
  2. What are your reactions regarding countries that are cracking down on news about Panama Papers?

SZ_investigativ179 karma

As investigative journalists, is there data or information that you do not understand, and require knowledge of basic finance in order to sort through the Panama Papers?

Of course we didnt unterstand everything at first sight. But whenever we struggled with certain details we contacted external experts, f.e. for money laundering, tax planning or sanctions.

argotechnica81 karma

How much more do you think is lurking in the dataset that you haven't discovered yet? Or, how are you thinking about this problem of determining when you're "done"?

SZ_investigativ152 karma

Great question! This is the biggest downside of the project: We will never be done. Ever!

Seriously, we don't know what stories are still in the data-set. We will continue to use the data-set, for example when some people are becoming of public interest that haven't been before.

kimluminati77 karma

Firstly - thank you for taking questions and putting together this AMA.

The implications that the Panama Papers are exposing are obviously serious and HUGE. Public confirmation of widespread abuse in terms of powerful players keeping finances in tax havens is sort of like exposing that the monster under our bed is real (REALLY REALLY REAL), with first hand proof.

  1. Now that we the public is (somewhat)aware, what do you think is the next step to punish/prevent abuse going forward and the possible fallout of these released documents?

  2. In your opinions, where does tax evasion and money laundering compare among other serious criminal charges?

SZ_investigativ110 karma

Now that we the public is (somewhat)aware, what do you think is the next step to punish/prevent abuse going forward and the possible fallout of these released documents?

We are journalists, not politicians. But we do think that the offshore industry needs to be tackled. It is our opinion, that we need worldwide registers of beneficial owners. This would be the most important step to end the misuse of anonymous companies.

It is great to see that legislators around the world are pressuring panama to be more open and transparent. And the same time it is not only about Panama. It is about tax havens around the world and by the way - there are some in the US as well!

Gnonthgol75 karma

How are you balancing requests from official investigators with the confidentiality of your source? I assume you have gotten tons of requests for insight from officials investigating people and organizations mentioned in the documents. They likely want evidence other then your articles but giving them full access or even revealing the source to them might harm the journalistic work exposing these people and may even reveal the source. Especially since many of these documents could be presented as official evidence in court.

SZ_investigativ128 karma

We are not giving out any documents to any authorities. But we published and are going to publish certain documents to proof our stories.

DasStammus60 karma

How do you react regarding the accusations that you would release the informations in a way that important and influential people in the western countries would not be burdened at all or - at least - not at first? Do the leaks just contain fewer information about people in western countries?

SZ_investigativ103 karma

There are countries we found more cases in than in others. Often this is correlated to the corruption index: There are countries with more corruption and shell companies are a typical instrument to hide such dubious activities. But if you look at Malta, Great Britain or Iceland you can see that also Western governments are struggling a lot with the revelations of the Panama Papers.

Rootabagaa52 karma

Did you get contacted by intelligences services in order to negociate and to hide some of the info?

SZ_investigativ151 karma

No, because they didn't know about it beforehand. At least we hope that's the case.

We have been contacted afterwards but we do not cooperate with Intelligence Agencies.

_Carroux_48 karma

Thank you really for your work! How did you coordinate the work with the other 400 journalists?

SZ_investigativ110 karma

We had a secure forum to share findings and discuss them. We also met up a couple of times, in Washington, Munich, Lillehammer, Johannesburg and London. These meetings were really important to build up the trust we needed to work together so closely.

These meetings were also great, cause we were not able to talk about our work with anyone else. Finally someone to talk to!

To coordinate the work, we set up project groups who were focusing on certain aspects of the Panama Papers. Like Fifa or Russia.

We communicated a lot with each other, also via encrypted E-Mails or chats.

RobertB1833 karma

What advice can you give someone hoping to get into investigative journalism, and where do you see the field going from where it is now?

SZ_investigativ60 karma

Learn data journalism and combine it with investigative skills.

Data journalists get hired. (for a reason)

Falith29 karma

How did you search for high profile names?

SZ_investigativ93 karma

We created long lists of politicians, CEOs and other persons of public interests. Then we threw those lists into our data-set.

But in the beginning the research was also led by personal interests. Like me, looking for anyone from Bayern Munich. Sadly, I didn't find anybody (Bastian)

anselmus27 karma

Vielen Dank für dieses AMA, und die hervorragende Arbeit mit den Panama Papers. Waren die meisten Dokumenten auf Englisch? Da so viele Journalisten aus unterschiedlichen Ländern daran gearbeitet haben, wie wurden Übersetzungen gehandelt?

SZ_investigativ56 karma

Die meisten Dokumente waren auf Spanisch oder auf Englisch. Da sich in unserem Team Journalisten mit 20 verschiedenen Muttersprachen befanden, konnten wir uns sehr gut gegenseitig helfen. Darüber hinaus haben wir auch extra jemanden eingestellt, der gut Spanisch kann.


In what languages were the documents? How did you handle translations?

Most documents were in English or Spanish. Since our team consisted of so many people who had 20 different mother tongues, we were able to help each other out a lot. And we also especially hired someone who is able to speak Spanish.

IndyAJD27 karma

I think I may already know the answer to this, but did you ever consider involving any international intelligence agencies such as the CIA to aid in your investigation? If not, why?

SZ_investigativ144 karma

We don't work together with Intelligence Agencies. Ever.

the_rural_juror727 karma

Hi, guys great Ama, my question is. Is it true that not all names will be released? Are there more ecuadorians besides the ones currently in you page?

Some days ago ecuadorian president Rafael Correa said great things will come out of this, now will see who is who, probably talking about his opposition who mostly are bussiness men and bankers and next year we have elections so it will be important to know who can we trust.

SZ_investigativ53 karma

The ICIJ will release a public database in May. It won't be the 2.6 TB of documents, but they will publish a list with companies, shareholders and clients. (Vanessa)

I_smell_awesome16 karma

What are your favorite pizza toppings?

SZ_investigativ21 karma

We ate a lot of pizza in the last weeks and months and therefore are perfectly qualified to answer this question!

Spicy salami Bastian

Bruschetta Vanessa

Frederik is already gone but we know for sure he hates gyros on his pizza.

BishamonX16 karma

I am from Egypt, part of the Middle Eastern region. Were there any media, news or journalistic organization that you trusted and worked with within Egypt or the middle east for the Panama papers research?

Let me rephrase the question. Were any organizations from Egypt or the Middle East considered but the conclusion or trust wasn't satisfactory?

Me being part of this region and always hearing about corruption, I've always wondered how our media, whether Egypt or Middle East collectively is seen, globally.

Especially since some of the Panama papers have direct impact on our region.

Thank you and keep up the great work.

SZ_investigativ50 karma

Yes, we worked with ARIJ - arab reporters for investigative journalism.

They are great!

At the moment we are planning a story about the involvement of Middle East Leaders, btw.

LeitaoBravo9 karma

Do you guys see your work ending up in a movie, just like Academy Award Winner Spotlight? Would you like it to end up in movie?

SZ_investigativ26 karma

That depends on the movie and who would play me. (Bastian)

obsesivegamer1 karma

Does Goldman Sachs have any input on day to day at the paper?

SZ_investigativ3 karma

Goldman Sachs does not own Süddeutsche Zeitung, neither directly nor indirectly. Read this: http://panamapapers.sueddeutsche.de/articles/5710e4e0a1bb8d3c3495bb80/ (Vanessa)