"I Ran a Search on Malta’s MPs and Their Spouses, and Bingo..."

Meet the Maltese data journalist who worked on Panama Papers

Matthew Caruana Galizia, one of three data miners from ICIJ exposing Panama Papers, spoke to Lovin Malta about his experience working on the huge international leak, and what's to be expected from the data drop coming tonight.

How long have you known about Panama Papers?

I’ve known about the leak for about a year and it was a long, cloistered one. For that entire time I couldn’t talk about any aspect of it -- not to my friends, family or girlfriend. Work makes up a large part of everyday conversation but most of the time I spoke about it in only general terms. When I lived in Costa Rica I said I made websites and when I lived in Greece I said I was working on an investigation into the migrant crisis.

The first few months were probably the hardest. We had to figure out how to receive the files securely and once that was sorted I had to come up with a way of making all of them accessible to journalists. I’ll never forget the moment I got the platform up and running with the first terabyte of files. I was alone in my apartment on a sunny day in San José. I ran some searches to test everything and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Up until then I had been working blind, focusing on the engineering problems and trying not to spend too much time looking into the files.

How did your colleagues view the Maltese case?

It was another case of dodgy behaviour in one of many we were seeing at senior levels of government all over the world. In Swiss Leaks we had (former PN minister) Ninu Zammit in what was a clear cut case of evasion on over three million euros. Imagine the disillusionment and sense of betrayal when I found out he had been given a tax amnesty by the current government - in complete secrecy - and gotten away scot-free.

With this leak things were different. The files were live, not something from 2007. I was looking at emails that were sent weeks ago. I thought, “OK, this is it. Surely there’s no escape for them this time.” I think that for everyone else it was clear, too, that there was no way they could explain their way out of this.

What was it like when you first got to know Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri were involved?

My jaw dropped. I was working on a feature that would allow journalists to run automated searches on the files using spreadsheets containing thousands of names -- all the world’s elected officials or all the names on Interpol’s lists, for example. It had to be capable of what’s called proximity searching, where small differences in a name, like a middle initial or putting the surname before the name, would be ignored. While I was testing this, I ran an automated search on Malta’s MPs and their spouses, and bingo.

We have a platform which we use to share and discuss findings and leads, called I-Hub. The first thing I did was write a post there to report what I had found. After that it was up to our partner journalists to follow through on the lead.

How did you think it would play out? How differently did it?

There’s a difference between what I expected to happen and what I expect should happen. They should all resign -- there’s no doubt about that -- but I was prepared for that not to happen. I knew they would all go on the defensive immediately.

The most important thing right now is that we’re empowering people with knowledge that has been kept hidden from them. Now it’s up to them to act and to demand resignations.

"I’ll never forget the moment I got the platform up and running with the first terabyte of files. I was alone in my apartment on a sunny day in San José. I ran some searches to test everything and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing."

Panama Papers

Was there ever a time you felt scared while working on the story?

There were lots of tense moments, certainly, but I don’t think that at any point anyone on the team was scared. I’ve worked with people who’ve been shot at and others who’ve been imprisoned but none of them ever told me that they were scared. To me the two things are so far removed that the thought that anyone at ICIJ might become a victim of some kind of retributive attack would never cross my mind. How can you ever be a good journalist if you’re scared of something like that? It would be like being truck driver who’s scared of crashing all the time. I don’t even consider myself to be a real journalist -- I do no reporting and have little time to do investigative work -- so I have no right to be scared. Nevermind that my existence in a post-democratic European state is pretty cosy, while investigative journalists like ICIJ member Khadija Ismayilova are harassed by the government and imprisoned by kangaroo courts in Azerbaijan.

What do you consider to be the worst story the team uncovered? The one with biggest implications?

There is no worst story. The whole thing is symptomatic of a system that’s rotten to the core. Have fun filing your tax returns this year while knowing that the very people who oblige you to do so are busy working out how best to avoid it for themselves and their friends.

Is there more to come?

Yes, tonight we’ll be releasing raw data on around 200,000 offshore entities from the Panama Papers investigation, in a searchable database.

The leak was entirely unstructured. We had files in around 50 different formats: emails, PDFs, spreadsheets and images. Among them were HTML files containing information on the offshore entities set up by Mossack Fonseca. We took these HTML files and used them to reverse engineer their operational database into what’s called a graph database. You’ll be able to explore the relationships between companies, directors and shareholders.

"Tonight we’ll be releasing raw data on around 200,000 offshore entities from the Panama Papers investigation, in a searchable database."

How big is tonight's leak going to be?

We’ll be releasing much of the structured data that we could build out of the files. It’s a lot and will be a boon to investigative reporters and others fighting for transparency all over the world. There are a lot more cases to dig up.

Will there be more info about the Maltese people listed in Panama Papers? Can you give any indication of what to expect?

I don’t know. I’ll be moving on to a new project that aims to automate much of the tedious work that investigative journalists do. A magic sieve, if you will. Hopefully something good will come out of that.

What's your message to people interested in data journalism? What skills do you look for?

To journalists, learn to code -- but don’t waste your time learning presentation-layer code like HTML or CSS, unless you’re particularly interested in making Web pages. If you want to do investigative work, learn things like SQL and Python. Learn to do advanced stuff in Excel to connect different data sets. Learn how to use the command line on your Mac to extract the text from ten thousand government gazettes. It’s fun, and you’ll break more stories.

I come from an engineering background and went into journalism because I thought we could change the way it’s done. And we did. So if there are other engineers out there reading this, I encourage you to come over to our side. What we look for are good ethics, imagination and that you’re nice people.

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