This month marks three years since the launch of the Panama Papers – a groundbreaking collaboration between hundreds of media organisations coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
On a Sunday evening in early April in 2016, hundreds of media outlets began to publish stories revealing how complex offshore structures are used to hide money, power and crime. By analysing 11.5 million documents leaked from a Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, journalists sparked an international debate about corruption, money laundering, and tax evasion. Since the data has now been shared with law enforcement, a total of 1.2 billion USD has been recovered by authorities around the world.
Open company data was a crucial piece of the puzzle – and in fact OpenCorporates’ data was used by ICIJ, and many of the investigations that followed. Exactly three years ago today, Spanish Industry Minister Jose Manuel Soria resigned as a result of the Panama Papers – and historic data found in the OpenCorporates database.
A manifesto written by John Doe – the whistleblower who initially leaked the documents to Süddeutsche Zeitung – was published a month after the leak. The manifesto calls for governments from across the globe to make this data openly available:
“In the European Union, every member state’s corporate register should be freely accessible, with detailed data plainly available on ultimate beneficial owners. The United Kingdom can be proud of its domestic initiatives thus far, but it still has a vital role to play by ending financial secrecy on its various island territories, which are unquestionably the cornerstone of institutional corruption worldwide. And the United States can clearly no longer trust its fifty states to make sound decisions about their own corporate data. It is long past time for Congress to step in and force transparency by setting standards for disclosure and public access.”
So three years later, what has changed?
Well, we’re a long way from winning the fight, but there is some progress. Just over a week ago, the European Parliament approved the new PSI Directive, listing company registers and company ownership as a high value dataset. And there have been positive moves on public beneficial ownership, again in Europe, with the 5th Anti Money Laundering Directive bringing in public registers.
But elsewhere, there is much slower progress. Promised action on the UK’s Overseas Territories risk being kicked into the long grass, despite Parliament legislating to create public beneficial ownership registers. Canada is also increasingly revealed as a key enabler of money laundering – with opaque and closed company registers, who are more interested in creating an enabling environment for criminals than creating a trusted and transparent business environment. And in the US, the states are showing little interest in genuinely opening up data.
So yes, some progress is being made, but it’s happening far too slowly.
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