When it’s all said and done, there’s no doubt that the hundreds of stories exposing the intricate web of tax avoidance and laundering, also known as the Panama Papers, will be an important blockbuster feat of journalism. The sheer size of the leak (11.5 million documents) and scope of the project led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (which brought together over 100 news outlets) is as staggering as it is impressive. The implications—the prime minister of Iceland has resigned, and dozens of investigations are allegedly underway around the world—will be felt for years.
Why then, in this moment of well-earned glory, would the primary party responsible for this act of journalism go out of its way to take a swipe at WikiLeaks, and, by extension, a prisoner of conscience?
ICIJ director Gerald Ryle was quoted in Wired (4/4/16):
Ryle says that the media organizations have no plans to release the full dataset, WikiLeaks-style, which he argues would expose the sensitive information of innocent private individuals along with the public figures on which the group’s reporting has focused. “We’re not WikiLeaks. We’re trying to show that journalism can be done responsibly,” Ryle says. He says he advised the reporters from all the participating media outlets to “go crazy, but tell us what’s in the public interest for your country.”
Some quick background: In 2010, military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning leaked a cache of documents to WikiLeaks, the whistleblowing enterprise led by Julian Assange, leading to a number of stories exposing the dark side of both the United States and its allies. The documents mostly consisted of State Department cables that showed the cynical inner workings of US activities overseas, the “Afghanistan War Diary” and “Iraq War Logs” that showed the Pentagon had been lying about the number of civilians casualties, and the “Collateral Murder” video that showed a US Army Apache helicopter in Iraq firing on a group of innocent people in Baghdad, including journalists from Reuters.