The Fourth Estate: The Pakistan Media’s Dismal Role in the Panama Papers Controversy

On 20th April, Pakistan as a nation stood divided. More than a year after millions of documents leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) by an unnamed employee at Mossack Fonseca caused a political storm which rendered the resignation of the Icelandic Prime Minister, the people of Pakistan awaited the fate of their own PM, in the hands of the Supreme Court. The Panama Papers revealed that three of Mr. Sharif’s children owned properties and assets not shown on the family’s wealth statement, the additional wealth channeled through offshore companies including Nescoll Ltd, Nielsen Enterprises Ltd and Hangon Property Holdings Ltd, incorporated in 1993, 1994 and 2007 respectively.

Last year Imran Khan, leader of the opposition party Tehreek-e-Insaf brought forth a petition to the Supreme Court, arguing that the facts of the matter revealed Mr. Sharif’s dishonest character and hence disqualified him from being a Member of Parliament. Both sides vied not for an impartial and fair decision but for a sense of justice which could only be realized by the court creating an outcome which they had already decided as correct.

It was disappointing for many in the center then to see a decision that could best be described as ‘to be continued’: in a 3-2 split decision, the Court ruled that the facts of the case warranted a closer look and voted in favor of the creation of a Joint Investigation Team that would investigate Mr. Nawaz Sharif and his family’s property holdings and their source of funding, following the money trail for the next 60 days after which the JIT is to submit its findings to the Supreme Court.

Most disappointing however was to see the finger of blame pointed everywhere by those at whom it should most justifiably be pointed. On one side, respectable publications happily published statements by the Minister for Information praising Mr. Sharif’s ‘victory’ and telling Mr. Khan ‘to stop crying’. Other publications directed themselves at Mr. Sharif and his party, issuing editorials with scathing remarks against his case and with suggestions that he resign (as one headline put it, Losing Power, Keeping Office.) Still others in the media focused on the Supreme Court with articles ripe with insinuations of corruption or at least duress as factors in the bench’s decision. This does not even take into account the monstrosity that is the 24-Hour news network, serving as a mouthpiece for different criticisms ad nauseam. Interestingly enough, none of this criticism was leveled at the media itself.

For almost a year, the ICIJ worked in secret on the 11.4 million files taken from Mossack Fonseca’s offices. More than 100 news organizations from across the globe participated in this global investigation into the world’s largest data leak. How many of these organizations were from Pakistan?  Zero. Zilch. Nada. In what is possibly Pakistan’s own Watergate, we have yet to see a Woodward or Bernstein emerge in the media to hold the powerful accountable.

 The media’s dismal failing during this debacle isn’t just an aberration either. If one was to peruse through articles pertaining to recent political controversies – such as PM Gillani’s resignation, ‘Memogate’, MQM’s actions in Karachi, and most recently CPEC – most ‘analysis’ given by the domestic news media is outsourced from foreign media companies or from government agencies. Any original contribution comes in the form of inviting mouthpieces from each side of a thorny issue to engage in a debate with a futility and senselessness that evokes memories of CNN’s Crossfire (wisely scrapped by the news network in 2005). In short, investigative journalism in Pakistan – especially the kind directed against the political elite – is dying. It is not enough to report the truth anymore; it is equally important to find it.

In an information age where the voters increasingly depend on news publications for insight into politics to consciously shape their opinions, Pakistan’s news media needs to be cognizant of its increasingly important obligation to not just report, but question and discern. The strength of Pakistan’s democracy depends on this just as much as it depends on our courts and politicians.

Justice Asif Khosa’s dissent as part of the Supreme Court ruling has gained massive popularity for its inclusion of an extract from Mario Puzo’s novel, the Godfather, which quotes Balzac as saying:

‘Behind every great fortune there is a crime.’

In the same novel Mr. Puzo writes: 

“In this world there comes a time when the most humble of men, if he keeps his eyes open, can take his revenge on the most powerful.” 

It is integral that Pakistan’s journalists keep their eyes open in vigilance at all times. If this happens, perhaps the Fourth Estate can become the institution to lead Pakistan’s democracy forward.


Source Image: DFID (Flickr)