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HomeBusinessLifting the veil: Q&A with Semanario Universidad's Ernesto Rivera

Lifting the veil: Q&A with Semanario Universidad’s Ernesto Rivera

More than 300 journalists from across the globe helped contribute to Sunday’s release of the Panama Papers, the massive leak that connects the world’s elite with a complicated web of offshore tax havens. Of those reporters, a chosen few from Costa Rica’s Semanario Universidad and’s DataBaseAR helped dig through the 2.6 terabytes of data leaked by an anonymous source to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, to pinpoint Costa Rican businesses, officials and other individuals who had connections to the now-infamous Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which set up thousands of offshore corporations globally.

Semanario Universidad, headquartered on the University of Costa Rica’s San Pedro campus east of downtown San José, published a 48-page special edition on Monday that revealed their initial findings from the leaks and some of the Costa Rican figures whose names were mentioned as past or present clients of Mossack Fonseca or otherwise had dealings with the Panamanian firm.

On Monday, The Tico Times sat down with the director of Semanario Universidad, veteran investigative journalist Ernesto Rivera, to discuss the groundbreaking leak and the unprecedented effort that went into it. Excerpts follow:

TT: Tell us about the amount of work involved in publishing the Panama Papers and what it means for Costa Rica?

ER: There’s a saying that has been repeated more and more in the past few years that journalism is dying, that certain media are going to disappear, and that there’s no way to attract readers anymore. We have a sort of pace that indicates everything to the contrary. For this edition’s run, we initially printed 50 percent more newspapers than we normally do, and by 10 a.m. [Monday morning] we had already sold out. When I arrived here at 10 a.m. from a few interviews, we were out of copies. What I think this reflects is that there are certain issues that provoke strong reactions from people, and there should be a rethinking of how a lot of media operate.

Is the problem that people don’t read the printed newspaper, or is it that most times we haven’t found the right issues that make people keep reading? The issue has to be sufficiently relevant so that people will read. That’s sort of what interests me from the perspective of the media as a whole.

What interests me as a reader of this huge leak is that supposedly in this media process it was going to be an act of cannibalism, where everyone was competing with each other. But the example set by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is that with a great issue you can rally 109 media outlets behind it. Some [that participated in the Panama Papers project] are massive like Le Monde, The Guardian, BBC Panorama, Univision, those are industry giants, yet they still joined together to publish something unique. This also goes for all the journalists who collaborated together to investigate an issue. Stories about the Panama Papers are being published in 25 different languages. That’s impressive, because at the end of the day, we’re all painting a picture, yet telling the same story, and that story is how the business class and the banking sector have constructed sophisticated structures for people to avoid paying taxes.

What was the aspect of this investigation that interested you most?

To me, the leak brings us possibility, and it is still bringing us possibility because this story is only beginning. We’re talking about more than 50,000 emails [regarding Costa Rica]. You need an army of journalists to not just go through 50,000 emails but also to understand the context and implications of all of them. This story that is just beginning gives us the opportunity to shine a light in a room that was dark until now. The spaces where these offshore companies exist are naturally dark. They are legally designed to be dark.

There are companies whose owners are other companies, and the owners of those companies are other companies. To get to the bottom of this mountain of connections requires a lot of work. What the leak is doing is suddenly exposing the trick. We can see that the money that left one country appeared in a company, which passed to another country and another country down the line, and there are commission fees, share structures, debt transactions, and then it returns to someone’s pocket. It allows us to see some of this architecture that is now becoming public.

How did readers react to the stories?

The reaction to me seemed incredibly positive in the sense that there’s been a huge demand for [the current edition], for one thing. What also captivated me is that there were so many young people reading it today. To see the number of young people standing in line out the door to get a copy, while everyone is saying they don’t read [newspapers] anymore, it seemed like a really good sign to me.

With many of the connections between companies and names of Mossack Fonseca’s clients, technically crimes weren’t committed. Are these connections to be perceived as guilt by association?

No, in the paper, from the very first page, we published a letter stating that the majority of these acts were not illegal. But they are of enormous public interest because what they show is a sector of society making great intellectual, economical, logistical, and legal efforts to avoid paying taxes. That act, by a group the size of which we’re talking, is absolutely a matter of public interest in a country that has a fiscal deficit of 6 percent and where we’re aggressively cutting the budget. It’s of great interest to the public to think about why we have to cut the budget for education, security, and all these other things while we can now see how taxes are handled from the other side that has all the economic power.

The reactions of some of those included in the reports have been quite defensive – they feel like they’re being attacked.

I think there’s an element of surprise for everyone. The leak reveals on an international scale that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin moved $2 billion through this network of accounts and people close to it. The level of detail and access that this leak allows I think caused a lot of surprise, and of course, the local people we mentioned reacted very aggressively.

In a global context, there currently is a lot of discontent expressed toward the elite, such as the growing popularity of Bernie Sanders’ campaign in the U.S., the 99% movement, the anti-corruption movement in Europe. Should we view the popularity of the Panama Papers reports here in Costa Rica among readers as part of that? 

I think the reaction we saw on the local level here in Costa Rica and the impact it has is really good for our profession. We see that a body of reporters working together can create change. It shows the impact that journalism can have and how it can cause widespread change. When we talk about journalism that can provoke change, people always thought about Watergate or My Lai. It was just one story or one report from someone witnessing the massacre that while it didn’t stop the war, it could effect its development. In this case, a global movement can provoke indignation regarding how the most powerful people in the world manage their finances.

What do you hope happens going forward? What can we expect?

I hope this adds greater clarity for phenomena like this. We still have to explore a lot of data that haven’t been looked through yet. … I think there’s still a lot to expect and there’s a lot left to investigate and understand, as well. And this will all be knowledge that helps gives authority back to the people.

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