Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Secrecy not what it used to be

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The governments of Canada and Germany have asked journalists for copies of the data leak on tax havens the U.S.-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained. The huge collection of digital files the agency is sharing with participating news outlets is said to show which gangsters, dictators and tax-averse rich people are hiding their money in secret bank accounts in the Cook Islands, the British Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, the British Channel Islands and other discreet tax havens.

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The journalists are not inclined to turn over what they have. "The ICIJ is not an arm of law enforcement and is not an agent of the government," said Gerard Ryle, director of the Washington-D.C.-based agency. "We are an independent reporting organization, served by and serving our members, the global investigative journalism community and the public." The governments will have to do their own digging.

Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was already trying. He announced in his March 21 budget he would be offering informants up to 15 per cent of taxes collected if they would turn in Canadian tax cheats hiding money overseas. He would also require banks to tell the government more about international movements of large sums of money and he would add more questions to the form where taxpayers say what overseas assets they have.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is the Canadian member of ICIJ, has published information about the overseas assets of Regina lawyer Tony Merchant and his wife, Liberal Sen. Pana Merchant. The CBC says the files contain information on 450 Canadians. The other 448 will have to wait patiently for the CBC to make inquiries and publish what it has.

In France, Budget Minister Jerome Cahuzac resigned from the government and then admitted he had been lying for years about the 600,000 euros he had been holding in an overseas tax haven. Until his expulsion April 2, he was a prominent member of the French Socialist Party, the defender of the poor and downtrodden.

Secrecy isn't what it used to be. This was apparent in November 2010 when the online data agency WikiLeaks, in conjunction with major newspapers, started publishing information gleaned from a huge electronic archive of U.S. State Department diplomatic cables. Pte. Bradley Manning has pleaded guilty to transmitting the files to WikiLeaks. The point was driven home in January 2012 when Canadian authorities arrested Sub-Lt. Jeffrey Paul Delisle, who was later convicted of selling naval intelligence to a Russian spy.

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The point is organizations now keep their data in electronic files that are quickly stored on data cards and easily transmitted by a few keystrokes. The guardians of those files are the unnoticed little people in the organizations -- the Bradley Mannings and the Jeffrey Paul Delisles -- who hold great power over the authors of those top secret files. When WikiLeaks was publishing official indiscretions, the public officials thought secrecy was a sacred trust that should be guarded, but now that tax-haven information is becoming available, they are asking for copies and offering to pay for tips.

The tax-haven banks of the world all have data-entry clerks and information technology departments. Some of the lowly people in those jobs are probably offended by the tax evasion and money-laundering that they see going by on their computer screens every day. If Mr. Flaherty and other finance ministers keep advertising their thirst for leaks on tax cheats, more information is likely to turn up eventually.

The safest assumption for anyone sending secrets to the bank or to the government or to another great organization is the information might be disclosed. The banks and the authorities of course promise on stacks of Bibles your privacy will be protected and your secrets kept safe. The times have shown what those promises are worth.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 18, 2013 0

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