What Are the Panama Papers?

The Panama Papers refer to the 11.5 million leaked encrypted confidential documents that were the property of Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. The documents were released on April 3, 2016, by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), dubbing them the “Panama Papers.”

The document exposed the network of more than 214,000 tax havens involving people and entities from 200 different nations. A yearlong team effort by SZ and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) went into deciphering the encrypted files before the revelations were made public. 

11.5 million

The number of leaked, confidential documents from the database of offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Understanding Panama Papers

The Panama Papers are documents that contain personal financial information about a number of wealthy individuals and public officials that had previously been kept private. Among those named in the leak were a dozen current or former world leaders, 128 other public officials, and politicians and hundreds of celebrities, business people and other rich individuals.

Offshore business entities are legal in general, and most of the documents showed no inappropriate or illegal behavior. But some of the shell corporations set up by Mossack Fonseca were revealed by reporters to have been used for illegal purposes, including fraud, tax evasion and the avoidance of international sanctions.

Documents Leaked by Anonymous Source 

In 2015, Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) was contacted by an anonymous source calling him or herself "John Doe," who offered to leak the documents. Doe did not demand any financial compensation in return, according to the SZ. The total volume of data comes to about 2.76 terabytes, making it the biggest data leak in history. The data pertains to the period spanning from the 1970s to the spring of 2016.

Initially, only select names of politicians, public officials, businessmen and others involved were revealed. One of the immediate consequences of the revelations was the April 4, 2016 resignation of Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson. On May 9, all of the 214,488 offshore entities named in the Panama Papers become searchable via a database on the web site of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). 

Key Takeaways

  • The Panama Papers were a massive leak of financial files from the database of Mossack Fonseca, the fourth biggest offshore law firm in the world.
  • The documents were leaked anonymously to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), which released them on April 3, 2016.
  • The files, which went back as far as the 1970s, exposed a network of 214,000 tax havens involving wealthy people, public officials, and entities from 200 nations.
  • SZ referred to the documents as the "Panama Papers" because the anonymous source who leaked the papers did so from Panama.
  • Most of the documents showed no illegal actions, but some of the shell corporations set up by Mossack Fonseca had been used for fraud, tax evasion, or avoiding international sanctions.

Source of the name "Panama Papers"

The group of documents was referred to as the "Panama Papers" because of the country that they were leaked from. However, the government of Panama has registered strong objections to the name, as it appears to put some blame or negative association on the country itself, despite its lack of involvement in the actions of Mossack Fonseca. Nonetheless, the nickname has persisted, although some media outlets that have covered the story have referred to is as the "Mossack Fonseca Papers."