Opinion: The Panama Papers Challenge the Ethics of Journalism

April 11, 2016

Written and Edited by HV

Disclosure: My opinion doesn’t reflect the opinion of Sentifi.

It’s almost a week since the first reports of the Panama Papers surfaced on the Web. Less than 48 hours later, they claimed their first victim: Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson of Iceland. A week later, he remains the first and only casualty.

What about other names that have direct involvement in the biggest corporate data leak in history? What about Juan Pedro Damiani, a member of FIFA’s ethics comittee in Uruguay? What about Mauricio Macri, the president of Argentina? They have been named, but none have fallen.


What’s the deal with that?

Time may be the answer. The Vietnam War ended four years after the Pentagon Papers got leaked. Nixon resigned two years after he was linked with the Watergate burglary. It’s been four years since the first protest of Occupy Wall Street, and we’ve only started seeing its effects.


The 99 percent, the 1 percent, and wealth distribution have been America’s favorite talking points, even the presidential candidates use them in their campaigns.

The terms also created momentum for a movement for a higher minimum wage, evident in protests and votes in Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska, South Dakota, Florida, Maine, Oregon, New York City, Washington, D.C., Seattle, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

It’s true that Wall Street remains a fortress invulnerable to any pressure to change, but changes are happening outside Wall Street.

Changes take time, but here they depend a lot more on how much the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists allows us to know. The consortium is playing the role of a gatekeeper, according to its director Gerald Ryle, as it is cherry-picking which data from the papers to reveal to the public.

What the consortium is really doing is minimizing harm to the personal information of nonpublic figures in the papers. It’s showing compassion for those who may be affected by the leak. It is balancing the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.

Yes, I am citing from the SPJ Code of Ethics. We’re living in a time where WikiLeaks exists to satisfy our need to know at the expense of personal safety, where information travels at the speed of light, where anyone can be a journalist.

My point is, this is not about the changes we want, nor is it about wealth distribution or stopping the act of money laundering.

It is about journalism facing a 21st-century problem: Being ethical in an unethical world, by knowing which dark places we should shine the light on.

Even at the expense of social changes.