How open company data helps Global Witness investigate corruption

Investigators, NGOs and campaigners around the world rely on OpenCorporates’ open company data to uncover and expose corruption.

This is because legal entities are often a key part of the toolkit that criminals use to hide their ownership of assets or involvement in illicit activity.

Sam Leon, Data Investigations Lead at Global Witness, explains how OpenCorporates’ data helps support its investigations. Recorded at an OpenCorporates event in 2018.

Followers of OpenCorporates may already be familiar with how Global Witness, an international NGO, used our data back in 2015 to uncover a powerful elite connected to some of Myanmar’s most protracted conflicts who were benefiting from Myanmar’s multi-billion dollar jade industry

While jade mining is lucrative for a small set of individuals who are often connected to the military or other armed groups, the local population in areas where jade is mined languish in poverty facing the environmental and social consequences of rampant and under-regulated extraction.

In this year-long investigation, a critical piece of the puzzle was the data provided by OpenCorporates: the Myanmar company register (published by the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration – DICA), supplied as structured data, and thus allowing for connections between entities to be found. 

It was especially useful that access to OpenCorporates’ data allowed the Global Witness team to view key director and shareholder data that had been removed from the registry without any explanation.

Sam Leon, Data Investigations Lead at Global Witness, discusses the role OpenCorporates’ data played in its 2015 investigation of the multi-billion dollar Jade industry in Myanmar. Recorded at an OpenCorporates event in 2018.

New Global Witness investigation: analysing who really controls Myanmar’s extractives companies 

Fast-forward five years, and open company data has again proven key to Global Witness’s latest investigation centering on Myanmar.

Their report, published in July, entitled ‘Out of the Shadows: Who Really Controls Myanmar’s Extractives Companies?’, takes a look at Myanmar’s first beneficial ownership disclosures as a means to investigate the country’s troubled oil, gas and mining sector.

From 27 December 2019, DICA began publishing information on the beneficial ownership of extractives sector corporations registered in Myanmar. This is a big step forward for the Myanmar government and promises to bring much-needed transparency to the oil, gas and mining sectors which have to-date operated opaquely.

As the Global Witness report highlights, beneficial ownership data is particularly important in Myanmar, as the economy has long been dominated by a network of companies connected to the current military, members of the former military junta, ethnic armed groups, government-backed militias and well-connected cronies. 

The flow of profits in these corporate networks often can be obscured by the use of nominees standing in for the politically connected owners who want to keep their names off official documents. These nominees can often be family members but can also be friends and associates.

The report draws on OpenCorporates’ historical data, as well as from other sources, to identify inconsistencies or omissions in the newly disclosed beneficial ownership information – including the failure to declare high-ranking military officials as politically exposed persons (PEPs). 

The wealth of historical data available via OpenCorporates was critical in establishing which companies might have been suppressing key information about their company’s connections. The fact it was made available via an API, also enabled Global Witness to build their own tools to identify linkages and relationships between individuals and companies mentioned in the report.

This is an important investigation, and one that shows not just the value of historical information, and OpenCorporates’ data, but why beneficial ownership information is critical in the fight against corruption, tax evasion and conflicts of interest. 

Want to know more?

Find out more about the positive impact open company data has on society. 

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