PANAMA CITY (AFP) - The Panama Papers scandal promises to deepen around the world on Monday (May 9) when a journalists' group with access to the digital cache of documents is to put many of them online.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) is to release the documents in a searchable database at 1800 GMT on Monday (2am on Tuesday, Singapore time).
This will be accessible to the public at offshoreleaks.icij.org.
The US-based organisation said the release "will not be a 'data dump'" of the sort the Wikileaks group became known for.
But it will reveal names and information on 200,000 offshore entities set up by wealthy individuals around the world.
The documents are from 2.6 terabytes of data given to a German newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, over a year ago by an anonymous source using the name "John Doe." The data came from nearly four decades of digital archives of one Panamanian law firm specialised in creating and running offshore entities, Mossack Fonseca, which says its computer records were hacked from abroad.
The German newspaper gave access to the trove to the ICIJ, and through it to hundreds of journalists in different countries.
Reports thus far have focused on scores of high-profile individuals: political leaders, celebrities and a few criminals.
- Iceland's prime minister was forced to resign when his name was linked to an offshore company.
- British Prime Minister David Cameron ended up admitting he profited from an offshore firm started by his father.
- Russian President Vladimir Putin's closest circle was named in the revelations, prompting Putin to claim the Panama Papers was a US plot against him.
- Argentine President Mauricio Macri was also linked to offshore companies.
- China censored media and online social networks from mentioning links between the families of Chinese leaders with offshore entities.
- Other notable people made uncomfortable by the documents include Argentine football star Lionel Messi, Hong Kong film star Jackie Chan and Spanish movie director Pedro Almodovar.
Mossack Fonseca on Thursday issued a "cease and desist" on US-based ICIJ, saying putting up the information publicly would violate attorney-client privilege.
But there is no sign of the ICIJ calling off the online database. The organisation says it is important the public be able to look at information on any offshore company in the Panama Papers.
"We think that information about who owns the company should be public and transparent," Marina Walker Guevara, deputy director of the ICIJ, told CNN.
She stressed, however, that "this is not disclosing private information en masse."
There are also legitimate reasons to use offshore companies and trusts. ICIJ has stressed it does not intend to suggest or imply that the people and companies who do so have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.
Since reporting on the Panama Papers started at the beginning of April, Panama's government has been struggling to persuade the world that it is not a haven for tax-dodgers and money launderers.
France has already put the Central American nation on its blacklist of tax havens, and other Western countries are considering following suit.
The online release of more Panama Papers could deepen the damage to Panama's image.
"We're very concerned that the country's reputation will be affected by this situation," the minister for government, Milton Henriquez, told TVN-2 television.
Panama's pushback against being singled out as a facilitator of offshore business was further complicated just days ago when the United States declared members of one of country's most prominent business families, the Wakeds, among the top global money launderers for ruthless drug cartels.
The US blacklisted many of the Waked's 68 companies in Panama, whose interests span a bank, an upmarket shopping center, duty free outlets and media. One of the suspects, Nidal Ahmed Waked Hatum, was arrested in Colombia and is awaiting extradition to the United States to face charges.
On Sunday, Panama's Chamber of Commerce for Industry and Agriculture acknowledged that the scandals were "rocking the country."