IN 2016, A MAN WHO CALLED HIMSELF JOHN gave Der Spiegel, a German news magazine, 1.9 terabytes of data, or the equivalent of 500,000 Bibles. The cache included emails, contracts, and other documents that exposed unsavory behavior among the elites of global soccer, the biggest sport in the world and a religion in Germany.
In the two years that followed, John gave Der Spiegel at least two more terabytes of data: according to The New Yorker, the total haul was almost double the (already massive) leak of documents from an offshore tax firm, in 2016, which prompted the Panama Papers exposé. Der Spiegel shared data with news organizations across Europe so that they could report from it, too; collectively, they published hundreds of articles.
The stories that emerged from John’s data are known, collectively, as “Football Leaks.” They have revealed tax dodging, extortionate agents’ fees, match-fixing, ethnic profiling, and—in one case—a rape allegation against Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world’s most famous player. The impact has been explosive, especially in Europe. (In the US, reaction has been more muted.)
But only a handful of people knew who the source actually was. In September 2018, that changed. A Portuguese magazine identified John as Rui Pinto, a 30-year-old Portuguese man living in Hungary. (Pinto maintains that he isn’t the only person behind Football Leaks, but no one else has come forward.)
Such leaks often have shorthand names—the Panama Papers, the Paradise Papers, WikiLeaks, the NSA Files, Swiss Leaks, Lux Leaks, Football Leaks—and have led to transformative inquiries, resignations, and policy reform. Collectively, they have profoundly changed our understanding of the architecture of global tax evasion (individual and corporate); the surveillance state; war crimes; diplomatic maneuverings; and more.
But this new breed of vast, computerized data drop, which elucidates big, global problems, is something that both journalism and the law have struggled to cope with. Often, it is the leakers themselves who suffer, as their cases grind through courts in their home countries, or wherever they happen to get caught in an improvised international web of law and enforcement.
To the extent we get to know people like Pinto, we’re encouraged—often by the powerful people they exposed—to view them as morally compromised; as traitors, thieves, criminals. Their reputations and freedom often depend on the application of outdated laws, designed for an analog world.
A US–based support network, a top French lawyer, and European lawmakers are among those who are currently working to change that. Pinto is one of their top priorities. And his story reveals, in its vast complexity, the broader issues journalists, governments, and the global super-rich face in dealing with the people who expose their secrets.
IN 2018, GILLES RAYMOND, a French philanthropist, in partnership with others, startedThe Signals Network, a foundation that aims to provide psychological, legal, and logistical support to what it terms whistleblowers worldwide. The group currently supports a half dozen, including Pinto. “Most of the time, when you think of a whistleblower, you might think of a sad geek who destroyed his life. It should not be that image,” Delphine Halgand-Mishra, the group’s executive director, says. “You can think of whistleblowers as more a power movement, like the #MeToo movement.”
The term “whistleblower” is more heroic than “leaker,” which has pejorative overtones. (The French language does not make a distinction in the same way; it uses the phrase lanceur d’alerte, which translates as one who raises the alarm, to mean “whistleblower.” There isn’t a commonly-used shorthand for “leaker.”) The former implies the valiant exposure of wrongdoing; the latter does not. Leaks, of course, aren’t always benevolent—the recent publication of cables in which Britain’s ambassador to the US criticized the Trump administration, for example, was controversial and clearly political. (He resigned nonetheless.) Sometimes “leaked” information—such as the Democratic Party emails hacked by Russia and published by WikiLeaks ahead of the 2016 US presidential election—has been maliciously stolen, and weaponized to serve an agenda.
Pinto occupies a complicated place in this nexus. He has said he has insider sources. But Doyen Sports Investments—a Kazakh-backed firm involved in soccer transfers whose documents underpin parts of Football Leaks—and the leading Portuguese soccer club Sporting Lisbon have accused Pinto of hacking them. Portugal has charged Pinto with “illegally accessing information,” and with attempting to extract cash from Doyen to conceal the documents he’d obtained from them. Pinto claims he was merely trying to verify the documents, and never intended to cut a deal. Nonetheless, Sam Knight, in a recent profile of Pinto for The New Yorker, wrote that “As soon as Football Leaks appeared, it had the air of an illicit enterprise.” When Knight suggested to Pinto that his “sources” don’t actually exist, Pinto smiled and said that would be a “plot twist.”
Pinto has also been charged with “violation of secrecy.” That’s troubling: however he got the Football Leaks documents, it’s undeniable that the information they contain has been highly valuable. It’s not just soccer fans who think so: authorities in several European countries have sought Pinto’s cooperation as they investigate the material in the Football Leaks stories. French prosecutors invited Pinto to help them even before his identity was made public; they had even been prepared to enrol him in a witness-protection scheme. According to Le Monde, Pinto passed them 12 million files. State agencies in Germany and Belgium have also been in contact with him. In mid-July, Spanish authorities started investigating Doyen for money laundering and tax fraud.
But in Portugal the strength of the soccer industry and the sport’s popularity make prosecuting Pinto more attractive than working with him, according to some of his supporters. “Football is the opium of the people in Portugal,” Ana Gomes, a high-profile Portuguese socialist politician who recently stepped down from the European Parliament, says. “In Portugal, you often have the three main news channels at the same time just discussing football. It’s absolutely ridiculous.” (In July, Gomes, along with Halgand-Mishra and Eva Joly, a former French presidential candidate, met with Portugal’s justice minister to discuss Pinto’s case.)
According to Portuguese newspaper Diario de Noticias, meanwhile, in early June, Portuguese investigators secretly interviewed Ronaldo—whose tax affairs were implicated in Football Leaks, in addition to the rape allegation against him—not as a suspect, but as a “victim and witness” in Pinto’s case.
Gomes says it is strange that Pinto has been kept in prison while he awaits trial given that the most serious allegation he faces is attempted extortion. In late June, Portuguese authorities extended Pinto’s detention by three months. His lawyers have called this continued incarceration “judicial harassment.”
“I’ve been asking criminal lawyers in Portugal if they know of anyone else who is in preventative prison for that kind of crime, and nobody was able to show me a single case yet,” Gomes told me. “So it seems quite selective.”
IN MAY, I VISITED WILLIAM BOURDON, one of Pinto’s lawyers, in Paris. I ascended to Bourdon’s chambers in a cramped art-nouveau elevator off of a gated courtyard next to the Louvre, then waited 45 minutes before he swept me into his office. He began by brusquely telling me he had a thousand things to do.
This year alone, he’s worked on global cases involving Malaysia, Cameroon, Syrian Kurdistan, Colombia, Brazil, and Russia. Last year, the French edition of GQnamed him the most powerful lawyer in France, citing his past work against multinationals and corrupt officials. In 2017, Bourdon assisted in the conviction of Teodorin Nguema Obiang, the son of Equatorial Guinea’s president, on charges of embezzling state funds and laundering them in France. Equatorial Guinea subsequently accused Bourdon of “financing terrorism,” and put out a warrant for his arrest.
Bourdon has established himself as a go-to lawyer for whistleblowers and those adjacent to them. He has represented Assange and Edward Snowden, as well as leakers from France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and South Africa. He is a member of The Signals Network’s board of advisers, and established an organization to support whistleblowers in Africa; he says he’s currently trying to set up a similar group in Latin America. “In countries where the separation of powers doesn’t exist, or where lawyers are threatened, or where you risk death as soon as you speak out as a dissident, it’s obviously suicidal to be a whistleblower,” Bourdon told me.
Last summer, he took up Pinto’s case. “[Pinto] told me: ‘What I want is to clear my name and to clean the football industry,’” Bourdon recalled. (Interestingly, Bourdon’s other clients include Michel Platini, the former president of European soccer’s governing bodywho is serving a four-year ban from soccer following corruption allegations. Platini has denied wrongdoing. Bourdon says his simultaneous defenses of Pinto and Platini are “perfectly coherent”; Platini, he says, was targeted in a “coup” by world soccer leaders after he advocated good-governance reforms.)
Bourdon sees Pinto as a new type of whistleblower, motivated by indignation, pure and simple. In the sense that they lack institutional ties to the company or companies they’re exposing, Bourdon describes such whistleblowers as coming “out of the blue.” (He used the English words, despite talking in French.) Bourdon says Pinto, in this regard, is a “cousin” of John Doe, the whistleblower at the origin of the Panama Papers tax leak who has said that income inequality drove him to expose the secrets of the super-rich. (John Doe remains anonymous.) In the case of Pinto, “It’s an indignation linked to… an amour déçu,” Bourdon said, referring, literally, to Pinto’s “disappointed love” of soccer. “He’s a soccer fan, and he wants to serve the public interest when the public interest has been very seriously compromised.”
Pinto’s motives and practices are open to question. But should it matter if they’re pure? Whistleblowers should be disinterested and act in good faith, Bourdon said. And their revelations should serve the public interest.
In some jurisdictions, that’s enough to offer whistleblowers legal protection. But again there are disparities: both within jurisdictions—in many places, employee whistleblowers are protected better than those who come from “out of the blue”—and between them. Sometimes, these disparities feel arbitrary. If Pinto was from England he might have had a better chance of being protected as a whistleblower, Bourdon told me. And yet, Pinto is Portuguese, and in jail.
Bourdon fulfils a clear need, offering support to some of the high-profile individuals who fall between such cracks. “The same whistleblower can be celebrated and receive all the prizes for ‘best citizen’ in a certain European country and be criminalized in another,” he said.
IN 2010, ANTOINE DELTOUR, then an auditor at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Luxembourg, posted an anonymous message in an online forum. The post concerned a practice in the country that allows large corporations to dramatically—and legally—lower their tax burdens. Ed Perrin, a French journalist, found the message and was able to track Deltour down. Deltour leaked a trove of data to Perrin that eventually formed the basis of a transnational investigation coordinated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the group that would go on to break open the Panama Papers. “No whistleblower wakes up one day and says to themselves, I’m going to become a whistleblower,” Deltour told me. “In fact, it’s the fruit of a long process of indignation.”
As with Football Leaks years later, Lux Leaks was a much bigger story in Europe than in the US. Apple, Amazon, IKEA, and Pepsiwere among the companies implicated in the ensuing scandal. Deltour is a French citizen, but the judicial system in Luxembourg was able to go after him regardless. Even as the story he helped break spurred meaningful discussions about tax reform across the European Union, Deltour went on trial in Luxembourg, charged with various counts of breaching trade secrets and theft.
“The public interest, in the broadest sense, is often different to the public interest as perceived by a particular state,” Deltour told me. In Luxembourg, the financial sector “is a major national interest, whereas for the rest of Europe, we have more desire, more interest in knowing what’s really happening in Luxembourg. In the same way, France will try to defend its nuclear industry, Germany [will defend] its automobile industry, and so on.”
Yet even within this transformative verdict, there were contradictions. The conviction of Raphaël Halet, a second PwC whistleblower, was upheld on the bizarre grounds that—because Deltour had already informed the world of Luxembourg’s tax practices—Halet’s subsequent revelations were not of sufficient public interest to qualify him as a whistleblower. As Perrin, who was charged in Luxembourg in connection with Halet’s case but acquitted at an earlier date, told me, the judge acted like “an editor-in-chief of a newspaper who says, We have enough information on this topic, we don’t need more.”
In future, things might be different in Europe. In April, a few weeks before I visited Bourdon, the European Parliament, the legislative arm of the EU, voted overwhelminglyto strengthen whistleblower protections continent-wide, citing the current “fragmented” policy landscape. The lawmaker who proposed the directive cited the examples of Lux Leaks and Football Leaks, as well as that of the Panama Papers, as justification. The EU’s executive was expected to approve the measure, meaning that it will become legally binding in each of the EU’s member states. According to ICIJ, nearly two-thirds of those states currently lack such protections in domestic law—including Portugal.
The directive, observers told me, is a step in the right direction. Under its terms, whistleblowers in a range of industries who raise issues that they see at work will be protected from reprisal; under certain conditions, they will have the right to raise issues directly with their governments, or make them public via the media. Motives, the directive says, are irrelevant.
But the provisions are far from perfect. Bourdon’s “out of the blue” whistleblowers—people such as Pinto, who never had a professional connection to the organizations they’re exposing—are not explicitly covered, and thus will not be as strongly protected as whistleblowers who have or had an institutional connection, such as Deltour. This, too, seems arbitrary, especially given that some punitive European laws, like joint arrest warrants, apply equally.
Bourdon says this will change as more leaks come from external whistleblowers. For now, however, European law remains flawed. And standardizing it, of course, will do nothing to help whistleblowers in different jurisdictions who expose wrongdoing that is international in scope. In the US alone, there’s no single law protecting whistleblowers, but rather a patchwork of more than 60 different federal laws, plus numerous statutes at the state level, according to a 2017 guide produced by the Government Accountability Project. Other democracies are actively tightening their official and business secrecy laws. If whistleblower rights are advancing in some parts of the world, they appear to be in retreat in others.
“We need the international community to create a multilateral, international convention for whistleblowers… But for the moment, we’re not there,” Bourdon says. “When you look at the ravages of populist forces, xenophobic forces, anti-democratic forces around the world, we’re not in a very good period” for imposing whistleblower protections.
Last week, Bourdon visited Pinto in jail. Pinto wants to continue to cooperate with those countries that do want to investigate his findings, Bourdon told me over the phone. But, he added, “The artificial criminalization against [Pinto] could be—if it continues—contradictory to his will and wishes.”
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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.