The Panama Papers are a leaked set of 11.5 million confidential documents that provide detailed information about more than 214,000 offshore companies listed by the Panamanian corporate service provider Mossack Fonseca, including the identities of shareholders and directors of the companies. The documents show how wealthy individuals, including public officials, hid their assets from public scrutiny. At the time of publication, the papers identified five then-heads of state or government leaders from Argentina, Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Ukraine, and the United Arab Emirates; as well as government officials, close relatives, and close associates of various heads of government of more than forty other countries. The British Virgin Islands was home to half of the companies exposed and Hong Kong contained the most affiliated banks, law firms and middlemen.
While the use of offshore business entities is not illegal in the jurisdictions in which they are registered, during their investigation reporters found that some of the shell companies may have been used for illegal purposes, including fraud, drug trafficking, and tax evasion.
An anonymous source using the pseudonym "John Doe" made the documents available in batches to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung beginning in early 2015. The information from this unremunerated whistleblower documents transactions as far back as the 1970s and eventually totaled 2.6 terabytes of data. Given the scale of the leak, the newspaper enlisted the help of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which distributed the documents for investigation and analysis to some 400 journalists at 107 media organizations in 76 countries. The first news reports based on the papers, and 149 of the documents themselves, were published on April 3, 2016. The ICIJ plans to publish a full list of companies involved in early May 2016.