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Journalists hang tough in face of backlash against Panama Papers reporting

In late July, Moussa Aksar, the director of Niger’s L’Évènement newspaper, answered his phone and heard a familiar voice warning him that he was, once again, in danger.

“Be careful,” a friendly source told Aksar. “Look out for yourself and be careful what you say on the phone.”

Aksar had just published Niger’s first exposé from the Panama Papers, the investigation based on a leak of documents from a law firm that has helped politicians, oligarchs and fraudsters create and use secrecy-veiled shell companies.

The July 25 edition of Aksar’s newspaper featured a front-page story highlighting previously unknown details regarding an offshore company linked to a businessman reputed to be a major financier of Niger’s ruling political party. Copies of the paper sold out within hours.

Many citizens were delighted by the revelations. Others took aim.

“Moussa Aksar is reportedly hiding,” one Facebook user wrote, accusing Aksar of being wanted by the police for his reporting. “Has he lost his ability to make up fake stories?” laughed another. Another accused him of blackmail. Aksar suspects he was followed. He told his two daughters to lock the door and to unleash the family’s guard dogs.

Aksar and his newspaper aren’t alone among the journalists and news outlets that have been hit with blowback in response to their work on the Panama Papers investigation, the largest collaboration of journalists in history.

Even as the Panama Papers disclosures have sparked 150 official investigations in at least 79 countries around the world, they have also provoked pushback from individuals and governments displeased with revelations of the hidden economic holdings of the global elite. Politicians, business executives and thousands of their supporters have responded with vitriol, threats, cyberattacks and lawsuits, according to a survey by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which coordinated the Panama Papers investigation.

These hardline reactions are part of a continuing pattern around the world of threats and suppression targeting journalists, like Aksar, who fight to tell uneasy stories. Niger authorities jailed Aksar for six days in 2008, for example, for his reporting on corruption and trafficking in fake medicines and black market babies.

“We are tracking the impact of Panama Papers and the retaliation journalists and media organizations are suffering,” said Courtney Radsch, advocacy director at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Sadly, we find it par for the course that journalists are under attack for reporting on corruption. We know that it is one of the most dangerous beats for journalists.”

One of the most unexpected flashpoints to emerge from the Panama Papers is in Spain where Grupo Prisa, the parent company of major newspaper El País, announced plans to sue ICIJ’s media partner, El Confidencial, for $9 million. According to El Confidencial, Grupo Prisa acknowledged the accuracy of El Confidencial’s reporting but claimed that the Panama Papers revelations that tied an offshore company to the ex-wife of Grupo Prisa’s chairman, Juan Luis Cebrián, amounted to unfair competition.

Cebrián’s ex-wife linked the company to Cebrián’s business and said that she had no role in its operations, a claim Cebrián denies. Both newspapers are fighting for the top spot in Spain’s news market. El Confidencial reported that Grupo Prisa claimed it lost readers and suffered economic loss because of El Confidencial’s reporting on the Panama Papers. Grupo Prisa declined to respond to ICIJ’s questions and said it is “in the lawyers’ hands.”

“The editor of the biggest newspaper and the biggest radio station in Spain is shamefully starring in the largest and most unprecedented attack on press freedom in our country,” El Confidencial wrote in an editorial in October. If the suit is successful, El Confidencial’s editor, Nacho Cardero told ICIJ, “this suit would mean that journalists can’t write or investigate about other editors or journalistic companies” no matter the level of public interest.

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