Finland's Supreme Administrative Court has ruled that public broadcaster Yle and its journalists have the right to refuse to hand over to the Tax Administration materials from its Panama Papers investigation.
In 2016 Finnish tax authorities ordered public broadcaster Yle to hand over documents leaked from the Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca. The tax office threatened to secure search warrants to raid Yle’s premises and journalists’ homes.
The Panama Papers is a trove of more than 11 million documents uncovered in 2016, which outlined years of work by a Panamanian law firm to set up shell firms in tax havens for wealthy clients.
The documents were originally handed over to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung by an anonymous source.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) later joined in analysing the vast data dump. Altogether some 400 journalists from more than 100 media organisations in over 80 countries worked on the project.
As part of this unprecedented effort, two Yle reporters were given access to the documents. They found that a number of Finnish individuals and firms were involved in setting up and taking advantage of offshore tax havens.
In 2017 Helsinki Administrative Court ruled that the tax administration could not force Yle to hand over the materials.
Supreme Administrative Court's decision
The Tax Administration appealed that decision, and took its case to the Supreme Administrative Court.
However, the court rejected the tax office's appeal on Wednesday, finding it had not sufficiently detailed connections between its request for data and suspected tax law violations.
The basis of the Tax Administration's request for access to the data was to carry out a comparative data audit. Such an audit meant that tax authorities would have collected specific comparative data on companies with connections to corporations that were uncovered in the Panama Papers probe.
The tax administration would have used that data to assess the tax compliance of other individuals and to determine whether they have been appropriately taxed.
The Supreme Administrative Court ruled that comparative data audits need to examine accounting records or related data which are central to regular tax audits.
The court ruled that the Tax Administration's request did not meet those requirements.