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Censorship, CIA and no US citizens: Panama Papers conspiracy theories

A treasure trove of confidential documents from the secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca was made public on Monday thanks to a collaborative effort by journalists across the globe, spearheaded by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

world Updated: Apr 05, 2016 14:43 IST
Aditya Iyer
Aditya Iyer
Hindustan Times
The Arango Orillac Building where the Mossack Fonseca law firm is situated at in Panama City. The absence of any prominent US institutions or citizens in the first list of names revealed by the ICIJ has spurred rumours ranging from a conspiracy to media bias.
The Arango Orillac Building where the Mossack Fonseca law firm is situated at in Panama City. The absence of any prominent US institutions or citizens in the first list of names revealed by the ICIJ has spurred rumours ranging from a conspiracy to media bias.(REUTERS)

From China censoring its social media to the Kremlin alleging a CIA conspiracy, the Panama Papers revelations have caused major ripples through global powers, with implicated world leaders denying allegations of wrongdoing.

The Panama Papers on Monday brought to light the shadowy world of offshore companies and how the rich and the famous hide their wealth from public view, with its first list of names including heads of state, celebrities, prominent businessmen and football stars.

Spearheaded by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), and worked on by over 100 media organisations through the world, the leaks place a Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca, at the centre of the tangled web of shell companies and paper trails.

However, the information, or the blank spaces in between, has led to sharp criticism on social media, with many commenting on the lack of US names or banks in the list. Conspiracy theorists allege a western plot to destabilise Russian president Vladimir Putin, while others raised more serious concerns of media bias.

Corporate media protecting the 1%?

The only direct US link to the Panama Papers so far is that of financial writer and life coach Marianna Olszewski - who allegedly employed a 90-year-old British man as a stand in to mask funds she had confidentially invested in an offshore company.

The lack of any prominent US citizen or institutions’ name appearing on the list - that too despite the ICIJ listing 617 middlemen that Mossack Fonseca worked with in the United States - has begun to attract conspiracy theories and criticism.

One of the most searing criticisms has been that of Craig Murray, the former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, and a prominent human rights figure.

In a blog post on Monday, Murray said that German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung had made the “dreadful mistake of turning to the western corporate media to publicise the results.”

“In consequence the first major story, published today by the Guardian, is all about Vladimir Putin and a cellist on the fiddle. As it happens I believe the story and have no doubt Putin is bent,” Murray wrote.

“But why focus on Russia? Russian wealth is only a tiny minority of the money hidden away with the aid of Mossack Fonseca. In fact, it soon becomes obvious that the selective reporting is going to stink.”

“Do not expect a genuine expose of western capitalism. The dirty secrets of western corporations will remain unpublished.”

The Panama Papers: key facts on the huge journalists' investigation into tax evasion (AFP Photo)

Murray points to the US-based ICIJ’s funders as being a reason why no American politician or public figure has been named so far.

Their funders include the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Endowment, The Rockefeller Family Fund, the WK Kellogg Fund and the Open Society Foundation (Soros) - all significant (and significantly wealthy) industrial and corporate entities.

“I know Russia and China are corrupt, you don’t have to tell me that,” writes Murray. “What if you look at things that we might, here in the West, be able to rise up and do something about?”

While Murray’s points have more substance than, say, conspiracy theorists on social media, it’s more likely that no United States citizens have been named because of the sheer volume of data that needs to be analysed.

Nonetheless, questions about media bias have been raised on Twitter.

Read: Panama Papers: N Korea shell companies funding nuclear weapons surface

‘It’s bullshit’

Among the most high-profile names implicated in the leaks was Russian president Vladimir Putin. While the Russian leader was not directly named in the Panama Papers, some of his closest associates including Sergei Roldugin, godfather to Putin’s daughter Maria, and Yuri Kovalchuk, Bank Rossiya’s biggest shareholder, were.

In this file photo, Russian cellist and House of Music Director Sergei Roldugin (L) escorts then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, (C), and President Dmitry Medvedev as they tour a restored House of Music in St Petersburg, Russia. (AP Photo)

“The leak exposes the offshore holdings of 12 current and former world leaders and reveals how associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin secretly shuffled as much as $2 billion through banks and shadow companies,” the ICIJ wrote, while The Guardian on Monday led with how Putin’s closest friends had operated a network of companies and banks to allegedly create a slush fund for the former-KGB spy.

Read: Journalists working on Panama papers ‘ex-CIA’ operative: Kremlin

Russia, unsurprisingly, has denied the allegations, with a spokesperson for the Kremlin saying that the leaks were a result of a CIA-backed anti-Putin campaign; a statement which has found vociferous support among Twitter users


“It’s obvious the main aim of this dump is our president in the context of parliamentary elections and, in the longer term, presidential elections... It’s obvious the barbs of this attack are directed against our country and, personally, against our president,” Dmitry Peskov said on Monday, according to RCB News.

“The degree of Putinophobia has reached such a level that you’re just not allowed to say good things about Russia or about Russia’s successes. The bad things — that you have to talk about,” Peskov added.

One of the few other Russian officials to address the sensational claims was Andrei Kostin, the head of state-owned banking giant VTB.

“Mr. Putin was never involved. It’s bullshit,” Kostin said in an interview with Bloomberg on Monday.

Watch | The Panama Papers leak explained

Chinese censorship

Meanwhile, China also appears to be censoring social media posts about the Panama Papers leak which has named several members of China’s elite, including President Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law, Deng Jiagui.

The ICIJ shows Deng as having registered two companies in 2009; around about the same time that Jinping was “rising in power.”

An investigative report by Bloomberg News in 2012 revealed that Deng and his wife had hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate, share holdings and other assets.

Hundreds of posts on networks such as Sina Weibo and Wechat on the topic have been deleted since Monday morning.

The website, which actively tracks censorship on Weibo, listed “Panama” as the most censored term on the network.

The American angle

Given that the ICIJ has listed 617 middlemen in the US, it would be surprising, to say the least, if American figures were not linked to the growing scandal.

The law firm, which helped its clients (including firms subject to sanctions, such as in North Korea and Syria) set up offshore companies, came into the spotlight after more than 11 million of its internal files were leaked to German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung.

Zeitung then approached the ICIJ, which helped organise a 9-month long global investigation into the leaked files, the results of which were made public on Monday.