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Panama Papers: journalism, conspiracy theories and the importance of having a sense of humour

Charlie Hebdo’s editorial team managed to find some of their long-lost good taste, following a series of editorials with xenophobic and Islamophobic content that were simply ugly. Bearing the title “Tax Terrorism,” their last cover was brilliant. The topic was unavoidable. The Panama Papers affair has put a smile on my face, a feeling I share with a good company of people.

It is beautiful to have your suspicions documented, as they shouldn’t. The newly elected President of Argentina, Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager, Cameron’s father, Britain’s Leave campaign manager,  President Poroshenko and President Putin, the new President of FIFA,  are among the few caught in the Panama Papers scandal. I see this affair with a sense of sadism, fully aware that it will not change the world, like everyone I suppose.

Philosophically speaking, humour is always important because it prompts us to reflect on what is important and what is a touch too serious to be taken seriously. What I find hilarious about conspiracy theories is that their authors are usually very serious people, who take themselves very seriously, which is partly why they are easy targets for a good joke.

The serious debate

Of course, there are debates that must be taken seriously.

On Thursday WikiLeaks criticized the Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) for failing to disclose fully the “Panama papers” cache online for everyone to see, and search.

In a Tweet, WikiLeaks speaks about “censorship” of 99% of the documents and is calling for full disclosure. ICIJ’s Director, Gerard Ryle, told US magazine “Wired” that he would not like to expose sensitive information on “innocent private people” but only what is “in the public interest.” For everyone who feels we lost our innocence by eating an apple some time ago, I would say don’t be too cynical. This is a serious conversation, not a joke.

WikiLeaks appears to be right in that selective disclosure has already triggered three conspiracy theories, one of which produced by WikiLeaks. In my view, that is hilarious.

Conspiracy theory no.1: the ICIJ is biased towards Americans

Speaking to RT, WikiLeaks spokesman, Kristinn Hrafnsson, made clear he disagrees with ICIJ’s. The main aim is taken against ICIJ’s slower-than-justified revelation of 441 US-based clients. Hrafnsson notes there is a difference between stalling a release and selective release. WikiLeaks points the fingers towards ICIJ funders with the implicit question being if they are implicated in any way. Unfailingly, among the funders is Mr Soros. And you simply cannot have a good conspiracy theory without Mr Soros.

As my daughter would say, I am laughing, out loud.

Conspiracy theory no. 2: the Russians did it

The Russian specialist Clifford G. Daddy published a paper on Thursday suggesting the Moscow maybe behind the Panama papers.

The conspiracy theory begins with an offer of 11,5 million documents to Süddeutsche Zeitung, out of the blue. In this scheme, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) could not be foreseen but would be hoped.

The conspiracy theory begins with a peculiar admission, namely that Putin’s direct involvement in theft, tax evasion, or money laundering has not been established. Documents point to friends, not to President Putin per se. There are suspicions of a vast fortune, but no paper trail. That is a non-story, Clifford argues, because Putin would have little if any motive to hide his riches before 2014.

The conspiracy theory here ends with the idea that this would be a form of “hybrid warfare” against the West, of which Russia has proved to be capable. The theory rests on cui bonoargumentation. The argument is in essence that Putin has nothing to lose, but the West is losing its moral high ground. And since it has motive, Russia could find the opportunity. As for why the ICIJ has not as yet reveled US clients, the Russians omitted the data in the first place to discredit the U.S.

To paraphrase Dr. Gaddy, this is a “non-theory.” In other terms, such argument are even more fun than the cover of Charlie Hebdo.

Conspiracy theory no.3: the Americans did it

Unfortunately Russian conspiracy theories are not of a better quality. On Thursday, President Putin suggested that the Panama Papers have nothing to do with him. “Your truly is not there, so there’s nothing to talk about,” Russia Media report. As for his elder daughter’s godfather, the cellist Sergei Roldugin, for whom there is some paper trail, he covers him fully saying he is proud to call him a friend.

Then Putin argues causality to point the finger to Washington. He says that since officials from the U.S. Department accuse him of corruption, it means they are behind the whole affair. That is as eloquent and argument as Dr. Gaddy’s cui bono rationale.

And “we know who ordered the whole thing.” According to the Guardian, that was an allusion to a WikiLeaks founder, Jualian Assange, Tweet claiming that OCCRP “produced” the allegations against Putin’s involvement.

When Putin suggests that he is really not a kleptocrat, under any circumstances, I am convinced that really it is life that is imitating art.


What is known from the Panama paper is that 11,5 million documents of a Panamian company Mossack Fonseka has shed light into the world of tax evasion, where the sun rarely rises.

The company has branches in 35 locations and the owners of the company believe the whole affair is an inside job. Suddeutsche Zeitung has shared the documents with International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) that is, as its name suggests, a consortium.

The paper trail goes back for 40 years and has been reviewed by 370 journalists, from 76 countries, working in 25 languages. It contains information on 214,488 offshore entities connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories.

The only possible conspiracy here is the one aiming to discredit this information.

To prevent this full document disclosure maybe unavoidable; that is why ICIJ is considering it. That is a business that we must take seriously. But, for crying out loud, not too seriously.

The truth remains a battlefield at the expense of facts. Whoever does not realize that has never read philosophy in their life. Perhaps more importantly, he or she does not have a sense of humour.