Inside Public Integrity

Published — September 26, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

‘Offshore Leaks’ investigation earns ICIJ an honorary doctorate from Belgian university


We’re receiving some gratifying recognition for our major tax haven investigation from Europe, where the project has been one of the year’s biggest stories. Just this week there is word of a soon-to-be-announced major award in Germany and an honorary doctorate in Belgium for our International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

On Wednesday, the University of Liège in Belgium gave a prestigious honorary doctorate to Gerard Ryle, ICIJ director, who represented the consortium at the ceremony. The recognition cited ICIJ’s work this year on the Offshore Leaks investigation, a global exposé of offshore tax evasion and financial secrecy that is believed to be the largest collaboration in journalism history. ICIJ was among six journalists, cartoonists and academics honored for their contributions to freedom of expression and open access to knowledge.

In a letter notifying ICIJ of its selection representing investigative journalism, University of Liège Rector Bernard Rentier cited “the rigorous, courageous and ethical manner in which you practice journalism” as the central criteria for the honor.

Founded in 1817 following a decree by Napoleon a decade earlier, the University of Liège is one of Belgium’s oldest and most respected institutions. Among those previously awarded honorary degrees by the university are Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Salman Rushdie. A smaller number of organizations, including Amnesty International and Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) have also received its honorary doctorate.

The others recognized at the ceremony included Peter Kroll, a cartoonist with Le Soir, Jean Plantureux (‘Plantu’) from Le Monde, and the Tunisian cartoonist Nadia Khiari, along with Kazakh journalist Lukpan Akhmediarov. The final recipient was Stevan Harnad, a professor of cognitive science at the University of Quebec.

The Offshore Leaks project has had a major impact in dozens of countries. For instance, it has been crucial in pushing the G-8 and G-20 industrialized nations to focus on tax havens and tax fairness questions.

Launched in April and now including more than 50 stories, the tax haven project is based on previously secret information about 120,000 offshore companies contained in 2.5 million leaked files. The key findings from the Offshore Leaks project include these:

  • That government officials and their families and associates in Azerbaijan, Russia, Canada, Pakistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Mongolia and other countries have embraced the use of covert companies and bank accounts.
  • That the mega-rich use complex offshore structures to own mansions, yachts, art masterpieces and other assets, gaining tax advantages and anonymity not available to average people.
  • That many of the world’s top’s banks — including UBS, Clariden and Deutsche Bank — have aggressively worked to provide their customers with secrecy-cloaked companies in the British Virgin Islands and other offshore hideaways.
  • That a well-paid industry of accountants, middlemen and other operatives has helped offshore patrons shroud their identities and business interests, providing shelter in many cases to money laundering or other misconduct.
  • And, that Ponzi schemers and other large-scale fraudsters routinely use offshore havens to pull off their shell games and move their ill-gotten gains.

The German award expected to be announced any day is the Helmut Schmidt Prize for economic reporting, named for the former German Chancellor. The prize will be awarded to ICIJ’s German newspaper partner, Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Our goal, both at The Center for Public Integrity and ICIJ, which is a 15-year-old project of the Center, is not simply to win awards. Rather, the goal is to have an impact, to do high-quality in-depth journalism that helps fix broken systems, whether in Washington or around the world, using the tools of investigative journalism.

The Offshore Leaks project is a prime example of our best work, and it is gratifying to observe the recognition it is receiving. Congratulations to Gerard Ryle, Deputy ICIJ Director Marina Walker Guevara and the entire ICIJ team — now totaling 175 journalists in 60 countries.

Until next week,

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