Entry type: Single project
Publishing organisation: Africa Uncensored (Kenya)
Center for Investigative Reporting (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
Confluence Media (India)
Depeches du Mali (Mali)
Diario Rombe (Equatorial Guinea)
Efecto Cocuyo (Venezuela)
Fact Focus (Pakistan)
Interferencia de Radioemisoras UCR (Costa Rica)
Investigative Reporting Lab (North Macedonia)
La Nación (Argentina)
La Stampa (Italy)
Le Monde (France)
Le Soir (Belgium)
Miami Herald (United States)
Norddeutscher Rundfunk (Germany)
Premium Times (Nigeria)
Sveriges Television (Sweden)
Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany)
The Guardian (United Kingdom)
The Namibian (Namibia)
The New York Times (United States)
The News (Pakistan)
Trece Costa Rica Noticias (Costa Rica)
Turkmen News (Turkmenistan)
Westdeutscher Rundfunk (Germany)
Organisation size: Big
Publication date: 2022-02-21
Language: English, Russian
Authors: Journalists: Aladin Abdagic (CIN), Mohamed Aboelgheit (OCCRP), Vyacheslav Abramov (OCCRP/Vlast), Mercedes Agüero R. (Trece Costa Rica Noticias), Idris Akinbajo (Premium Times), Moussa Aksar (L’Evenement), Aaron Albright (Miami Herald), Abdulwahed Al-Obaly (OCCRP), Maha All Rashid (OCCRP), Mark Anderson (OCCRP), Cecilia Anesi (Irpimedia), Eldiyar Arykbaev (OCCRP), Mubarek Asani (CIN), Juliet Atellah (OCCRP), Olgah Atellah (OCCRP), Anna Babinets (Slidstvo.info), Edik Baghdasaryan (Hetq), Lorenzo Bagnoli (Irpimedia), Eric Barrett (OCCRP), Antonio Baquero (OCCRP), Jérémie Baruch (Le Monde), Benjamin Barthe (Le Monde), Sophia Baumann (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Rahma Behi (Alqatiba), Kelly Bloss (OCCRP), Massimo Bognanni (WDR), Natalia Abril Bonilla (OCCRP), Nina Bovensiepen (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Birgit Brauer (OCCRP), Romy van der Burgh (Investico), Aderito Caldeira (Verdade), Denica Chadikovska (IRL), Luc Caregari (Reporter.lu), Lindita Cela (OCCRP), Umar Cheema (OCCRP), Martin Chulov (The Guardian), Romina Colman (OCCRP), Xavier Counasse (Le Soir), Saska Cvetkovska (IRL), Shirsho Dasgupta (Miami Herald), Antonio Delgado (Miami Herald), David Dembele (Dépêches du Mali), Roberto Deniz (Armando.info), Aleksandra Denkovska (IRL), Momar Dieng (Impact.sn), Stevan Dojčinović (OCCRP/KRIK), Jesse Drucker ( New York Times), Alex Dziadosz (OCCRP), Metin Dzhumagulov (OCCRP/Kloop), Joachim Dyfvermark (SVT), Mohamed Ebrahem (OCCRP), David Enrich (New York Times), Jared Ferrie (OCCRP), Casey Frank (Miami Herald), Brian Fitzpatrick (OCCRP), Misha Gagarin (OCCRP), Emilia Garbsch (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Michael Gibb (freelance), Eduardo Goulart (OCCRP), Lena Gürtler (NDR), Lisa Maria Hagen (NDR), Kai Evans (OCCRP), Kevin Hall (OCCRP), Lyas Hallas (Twala.info), Luke Harding (The Guardian), Caroline Henshaw (OCCRP), Ben Hubbard (The New York Times), David Ilieski (IRL/OCCRP), Shinovene Immanuel (The Namibian), Nigar Isgandar (OCCRP), Aidan Iusubova (OCCRP/iFact), Jelena Jevtić (CIN), Mathias J. (OCCRP), Johannes Jolmes (NDR), Peter Jones (OCCRP), Josy Joseph (The Confluence), Maja Jovanovska (IRL), Volkmar Kabisch (NDR), Antonius Kempmann (NDR), Rattanaporn Khamenkit (Prachatai), Matthew Kupfer (OCCRP), Yanina Korniienko (Slidstvo.info), Erin Klazar (OCCRP), Elena Kuch (NDR), Karlijn Kuijpers (Investico), Valentina Lares (OCCRP/Armando.info), Paul Lewis (Guardian), Alexandra Li (OCCRP), Ilya Lozovsky (OCCRP), Kalyeena Makortoff (Guardian), Patricia Marcano (Armando.info), Samson Martirosyan (Hetq), Joël Matriche (Le Soir), Dmitriy Mazorenko (OCCRP/Vlast), Walid Mejri (Alqatiba), Stefan Melichar (profil), Anne Michel (Le Monde), Hulda Miranda (Interferencia de Radioemisoras UCR), Delfín Mocache (Diario Rombe), Eli Moskowitz (OCCRP), Mauritius Much (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Dumisani Muleya (NewsHawks), Hannes Munzinger (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Ruslan Myatiev (Turkmen News), John-Allan Namu (Africa Uncensored), Ivana Nasteska (IRL), Will Neal (OCCRP), Michael Nikbakhsh (profil), Ahmad Noorani (OCCRP), Marr Nyang (Gambia), Frederik Obermaier (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Bastian Obermayer (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Chikezie Omeje (OCCRP), Dapo Olorunyomi (Premium Times), Stelios Orphanides (OCCRP), Miranda Patrucic (OCCRP), Gianluca Paolucci (La Stampa), David Pegg (Guardian), Micael Pereira (Expresso), Dragana Pećo (OCCRP/KRIK), Joseph Poliszuk (Armando.info), Mirjana Popovic (CIN), Paul Radu (OCCRP), Renata Radić Dragić (CIN), Manuel Rico (Infolibre), Iván Ruiz (Infobae – Arg), Mariel Fitz Patrick (Infobae – Arg), Sandra Crucianelli (infobae – Arg), Hugo Alconada Mon (La Nación – Arg), Thomas Saintourens (Le Monde), Rami Salim (Libya), Sana Sbouai (OCCRP), Ewald Scharfenberg (Armando.info), Khadija Sharife (OCCRP), Karina Shedrofsky (OCCRP), Laurent Schmit (Reporter.lu), Jörg Schmitt (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Trifun Sitnikovski (IRL), Graham Stack (OCCRP), Tom Stocks (OCCRP), Bojan Stojanovski (IRL), Jan Strozyk (OCCRP), Benedikt Strunz (NDR), Drew Sullivan (OCCRP), Yiamyut Sutthichaya (Prachatai), Joan Tilouine (Le Monde), Beauregard Tromp (OCCRP), Alina Tsogoeva (OCCRP), Jurre van Bergen (OCCRP), Maxime Vaudano (Le Monde), Aris Velizelos (SVT), Faustine Vincent (Le Monde), Sharad Vyas (OCCRP), Julia Wacket (NDR), Julia Wallace (OCCRP), Jay Weaver (Miami Herald), Laura Weffer (OCCRP/Efecto Cocuyo), Ben Wieder (Miami Herald), Ralf Wiegand (Süddeutsche Zeitung), Johan Wikén (SVT), Jonny Wrate (OCCRP), James G. Wright (OCCRP), Martin Young (OCCRP), Kira Zalan (OCCRP), Madjid Zerrouky (Le Monde), Amra Džonlić Zlatarević (OCCRP)
Fact-Checking: Birgit Brauer, Inna Civirjic, Sergiu Ipatii, Ivana Jeremić, Olena LaFoy, Bojana Pavlović, Dima Stoianov, Rebekah Ward
Promotion: Will Neal, Charlie Turner
Design and Graphics: James O’Brien and Edin Pašović, in collaboration with Süddeutsche Zeitung
Web and Interactive: Mark Nightingale
Project Coordination: OCCRP (global) and Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany)
Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier are the co-founders and directors of paper trail media and have received numerous honors for their work. They received the ground breaking Panama Papers leak from an anonymous source. Before founding paper trail media, Obermayer and Obermaier worked for Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Based in Barcelona, Antonio Baquero joined OCCRP in 2020 and is an investigative editor covering Europe and beyond. Before that, he made his professional career at El Periódico Catalunya, where he served as a correspondent in North Africa, specializing in migration, as well as a war reporter in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
Switzerland’s draconian banking secrecy laws have made it nearly impossible to hold the industry to account. Until the Suisse Secrets project. The investigative team at Süddeutsche Zeitung – led by Frederik Obermaier and Bastian Obermayer – brought leaked records to OCCRP containing 18,000+ Credit Suisse accounts, the largest leak ever from a major Swiss bank. We found dozens of dubious characters in the data, including an Algerian general accused of torture and a Serbian drug lord. More than 160 journalists from 48 media partners on 5 continents collaborated for a year and co-published on the same day.
Suisse Secrets was one of OCCRP’s most read stories for 2022, garnering almost 650,000 unique page views.
The project caused a national debate about banking secrecy. The European People’s Party, the conservative group which holds the biggest number of seats in the European Parliament, suggested including Switzerland on the EU’s blacklist of high risk money-laundering countries.
The country came under intense international pressure to repeal the Swiss banking law. Switzerland’s Green Party said that parliament is not doing enough to prevent financial and tax crime and called for revisions to the country’s Banking Act that will protect “media professionals and whistleblowers from criminal prosecution” as a result of their investigations into the country’s banking practices.
In May, despite earlier criticism from a United Nations expert and campaign groups, a Swiss parliamentary committee blocked an attempt to overhaul strict Swiss banking secrecy rules. However, in November, the Swiss government set forth a motion to amend the Banking Act.
There were many reactions and responses in countries where the investigation was published. A few highlights:
In response to revelations that he at some point kept millions in Credit Suisse accounts, a Tajikistan politician and alleged mafia kingpin claimed that he was not fully conscious when his account was originally opened by an unidentified businessman.
High profile Taiwanese politician James Soong went on television to categorically deny the existence of his Credit Suisses accounts and his alleged link to corruption scandals after the findings were republished in dozens of local media outlets. Some lawmakers called for a full investigation by local authorities.
We are still doing stories using the data and published an investigation in December about Kosovo’s former ambassador to the U.S. failing to report millions in a Credit Suisse account. Weeks later, the state prosecutor initiated a case against the ambassador.
The data work was built around an extract/transform/load pipeline, sending the results to a dedicated SQLite frontend for analysis. The data was programmatically enriched with historic exchange rates and inflation-adjusted equivalent values. It was also automatically checked for inconsistent dates and these were flagged. The source material was in a format that was extraordinarily hard to work with. Due to concerns about source protection we cannot describe the process in detail.
Context about the project:
The reporting strategy required converting the leak into a dataset that journalists could use, which was complicated and time consuming and took about two months. The leak was mainly bank accounts — an amount and an account holder. The scale was enormous and we had lists of names across so many countries. Figuring out who these people were and whether knowing their bank balance was possibly a story meant pulling together local journalists in each country to often research literally hundreds of people.
Typically we have other documents to help build stories — contracts, emails — but for Suisse Secrets, the team had to pull stories from bank account data on an Excel spreadsheet. Reporters combed through thousands of bank records, interviewed insiders, regulators, and criminal prosecutors, and dug into court records and financial disclosures to corroborate their findings.
One of the main obstacles we encountered was a legal one. Possession, sharing, and publication of this data is a criminal offense in Switzerland and we were always mindful that we could be prosecuted by Swiss authorities. And we couldn’t have any Swiss reporting partners.
Then there was the difficulty of verifying the data. It was very sensitive information and we had to be absolutely sure that it was legitimate. A process of verifying these accounts was launched: see if they were mentioned in any legal case and interview judges and prosecutors in case they had knowledge.
Security was a challenge. We had to protect the whistleblower, whom we did not know. We had to make sure the information presented across the project would not be traceable back to a certain person in a certain position. (The whistleblower said in a statement: “I believe that Swiss banking secrecy laws are immoral. The pretext of protecting financial privacy is merely a fig leaf covering the shameful role of Swiss banks as collaborators of tax evaders. This situation enables corruption and starves developing countries of much-needed tax revenue.”)
We also had to make sure that no information about the project was released for most of the year and that all of the partners published at the same time on the same day. One mistake could endanger the whole project. We had 72 profiles in the interactive component and every one of those people had to be contacted for comment. But even with more than 160 journalists around the world, we were able to keep this information safe because of the trust and collaboration between partners.
As we were dealing with one of the biggest banks in the world with plenty of resources to sue us, we couldn’t make a single misstep in our reporting. The bank sent threatening letters ordering us to cease publication and the coordinator was threatened personally with imprisonment.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
Don’t shy back from working with large, messy data. Instead, find yourself a group of like-minded journalists. Even in environments with weak press freedom laws, an international collaboration can make successful reporting possible.