The so-called ‘Panama Papers’ are being presented as one of the biggest political stories of the year. Indeed, with the leak of 11.5 million files, going back over 40 years, and concerning the affairs of some 214,000 companies, many of them connected, actually or allegedly, directly or indirectly, to some of the most prominent people in the world, there is clearly no lack of possible copy. And with 400 journalists from 107 media organisations in 80 countries having been given over a year to trawl through the documents before the first batch of stories was released on 3 April, there was clearly no shortage of media workers to produce copy of greater and lesser credibility.
The impression that nearly all media outlets have sought to give (at least until some unexpected turns led to figures such as Prime Minister David Cameron being drawn into the frame) was that everyone named in, or who could be remotely associated with, one of the files was guilty of criminality or at the very least of acting disreputably.
And that is doubtless true in many cases. But by no means in all. Just as people form companies, consult lawyers or open bank accounts for any number of reasons, good and bad, so it is with the use of offshore locations. To take one basic example, when two firms set up a cross-border joint venture, they may choose to incorporate it in a neutral jurisdiction, particularly one with simple rules and procedures for company formation.
More to the point, from the standpoint of the international class struggle, when countries are more or less shut out of the international banking system (something that can be unilaterally and arbitrarily imposed by the United States on almost any country that incurs its displeasure, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea being a clear example) or are subject to actual or potential sanctions and the freezing of assets, then it is hardly surprising that they will seek to make alternative and discreet arrangements, and also that their choice of locations from which they may conduct their trading and other business affairs is inevitably circumscribed. This is the case for Russia, the DPRK, Zimbabwe, Iran and Syria, for example – all countries that have featured prominently in the imperialist media’s reporting of the leaks.
The main UK newspaper to report the leaks has been the Guardian, which started off with a front page and several inside pages largely devoted to the further demonisation of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Amidst the sensationalism and the clear presumption and implication of guilt, you would have needed to read with a magnifying glass to find the inevitable line tucked away in these and many other stories to the effect that “there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing”. And you would have had to dig even further to find out that, whilst President Putin was the main character in the journalistic script, his name does not in fact appear even once throughout the whole 11.5 million documents!
Without denying the extent of corruption that has befallen post-socialist Russia, and the other former republics of the USSR, it is clear that the main motivation here is further to intensify the anti-Russian campaign at a time when imperialism is fuming as a result of Putin having decisively checkmated its regime change agenda against the progressive government of Syria. The US Treasury has stated that it is searching through the millions of documents for information about anyone who “may have helped the Kremlin evade Western sanctions”. The US would then seek to cajole the European Union into adding them to their blacklist in June, when the EU is set to vote on whether to extend the sanctions it imposed in the wake of events in Ukraine.
Amidst the veritable forest of newsprint devoted to the Panama Papers, one thing stands out for the almost complete lack of interest given to it, namely the identity of the person or persons responsible for the leak. Not only is there a lack of journalistic interest, there have been no reports or speculation as to any investigations by police forces or security services. Yet we are dealing with a sophisticated and self-evidently criminal act, even if someone might seek to claim a public interest or moral justification.
The contrast could hardly be clearer or greater with the treatment faced by three individuals who have been responsible for leaks that have been damaging to imperialist interests, namely Julian Assange, Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden.
Julian Assange has spent years holed up in London’s Ecuadorean embassy, with the British state spending millions on a police operation designed to seize him should he ever set so much as a toe outside the door. A United Nations report that asserts that his human rights are being infringed by the conditions of his effective incarceration has been contemptuously dismissed. The entirely reasonable proposal that Swedish law enforcement bodies interview him inside the embassy has been consistently refused.
Chelsea Manning is serving a 35-year sentence in a US prison under draconian conditions that, for example, dictate that she cannot be visited by any person she did not personally know before her incarceration.
The US attempt to capture Edward Snowden was made into a full-blown international crisis that affected relations with China, Russia and a number of countries in Europe and Latin America. He was marooned for weeks in the small transit hotel of Moscow’s international airport as the United States refused to guarantee the safety of any civilian aircraft that might be carrying him to Cuba, Venezuela or elsewhere. That this was no idle threat was illustrated by the way in which the life of the Bolivian President Evo Morales was placed in danger after the US put pressure on a number of European countries to deny overflight rights to his plane, which was also searched whilst on a refuelling stop in Vienna, in blatant violation of international law, following a rumour, that proved to be false, that Morales was transporting Snowden whilst on his way home from attending an international energy conference in Moscow.
Faced with such blatant double standards, one can but conclude that it is all a matter of the legal concept of cui bono – or who benefits.
This is a question that acquires greater relevance when one notes that so far not one US citizen has been named in the Panama Papers. Or as the Financial Times put it: “The bulk, if not all, of the revelations in the Panama Papers leak relates to non-US citizens.” To imagine that citizens of the United States of America are of such probity, moral rectitude and transparency in their business, financial and personal affairs as not to figure at all in 11.5 million files concerning 214,000 companies over more than four decades would stretch the credulity of a three-year-old. So the suggestion that the leak may have even been the work of the CIA itself is not confined to fringe conspiracy theorists but has even surfaced in the mainstream media.
But if we do not know the identity of the leaker, what do we know about how the files came to be sifted, analysed and spun by 400 journalists from 107 media organisations in 80 countries, without even one of them (in this cut throat trade) breaking ranks and ditching the embargo for the sake of an exclusive?
This vast journalistic team was assembled by a body called the International Commission of Investigative Journalism. It sounds very high minded and public spirited. But clearly it needs resources. And, unlike progressive and campaigning organisations, that live from hand to mouth, this ‘international commission’ is not short of resources. It is, in fact, an initiative of another US body, the Center for Public Integrity.
The funders of the Center for Public Integrity read like a roll call of the US ruling class. They include the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Ford Foundation, the WK Kellogg Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Charles Schwab Charitable Fund, Fidelity Brokerage Services LLC, Fidelity Charitable Gift Fund and Microsoft Matching Gifts Program. The full list may be found here – it is well worth a read: https://www.publicintegrity.org/about/our-work/supporters
To take one example, the Open Society Foundations is the vehicle of billionaire currency speculator George Soros and is up to its neck in Ukraine and imperialism’s war against Russia. The home page of its website could not be accused of ambiguity, stating:
“Investor and philanthropist George Soros established the Open Society Foundations to help countries make the transition from communism.”
Of course, these dubious antecedents notwithstanding, and despite the best efforts made to smear anti-imperialist and other developing countries, there have been other fall outs from the Panama leak. So far the only political figures who have had to resign as a result are the right wing Prime Minister of Iceland and a minister in the Spanish government, whilst the political leaders who seem most damaged turn out to be David Cameron and the oligarchic puppet president of Ukraine.
We in the working class can certainly enjoy Cameron’s discomfort. But the fact that a Tory prime minister turns out to be a rich arrogant toff whose Daddy kept himself busy salting money away really should not come as a huge surprise. What is much more important is that the conscious working class acquires a deep understanding of international politics and economy and above all becomes crystal clear as to the vital distinction between imperialism and anti-imperialism.