Pandora’s box of papers
There is a long history of public figures using offshore companies and accounts to collect illegal income
October 05, 2021, Express Tribune: Editorial
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has caused rumbles worldwide with the release of the Pandora Papers. The same group was also behind the release of the Panama Papers, another set of leaked documents that led to the downfall of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and several other world leaders. The latest leak of almost three terabytes of data in 12 million files from 14 offshore services firms is significantly larger than the Panama Papers.
Over 600 journalists from 150 media outlets in 117 countries looked at the files, which were mostly from between 1996 and 2020, though some went as far back as the 1970s. While the use of offshore companies in ‘secrecy jurisdictions’ is not illegal, it is widely known that such companies are a mechanism of choice for politicians, celebrities, military officials, high-income individuals and everyday folks to avoid or evade taxes and launder illgotten wealth. There is also a long history of public figures using offshore companies and accounts to collect illegal income such as bribes.
In that context, it is shocking that Pakistani elected officials — and that too from a political party like the PTI, which did the most banging of drums over the Sharifs’ offshore accounts — who had such accounts and companies would have the gall to continue operating them after entering public life. As the ICIJ also noted, being named in the Pandora Papers does not equal a criminal offence, but that did not stop the then-opposition PTI leaders from accusing all and sundry of crimes after the Panama Papers leaks, and it will not stop the opposition of today from doing the same. But this time around, several PTI leaders and supporters have adopted a shootthe-messenger approach. One Pakistani reporter who worked with the ICIJ on the Pandora Papers is now being smeared as a PML-N stooge, yet the same reporter also worked on the Panama Papers and helped identify the Sharifs at the time. Meanwhile, state media and PTI mouthpieces that had nothing to do with the ICIJ investigation began running false stories claiming Nawaz Sharif’s grandson was named in the leak, and also offered up preemptive clarifications for Prime Minister Imran Khan, even though he was not named in the leaks or the initial reports. Meanwhile, little mention was made of people like Federal Water Resources Minister Moonis Elahi, who presented as his source of funds for investments of over $33 million the sale of a family-owned company that had been the subject of historical corruption allegations. The leaked data shows that Elahi set up offshore companies but later backed out from using them after his wealth management company told him they were bound to inform the FBR. Instead, he moved the money to the UK, where “his wife and children are residents”. This is odd because, if the rumour mill is to be believed, leaders of the PML-Q — PTI’s partner in Islamabad and Punjab — could threaten to leave the government to protect him from prosecution. Then there is the slew of ex-military officials, including some Musharraf confidantes that were part of ‘anti-corruption’ activities during the dictator’s rule. Some officers are accusing the award-winning reporters involved of being Indian agents, yet doing little to confront the fact that there is a paper trail. They are also not confronting the hypocrisy of smearing politicians for moving money abroad — often legally — when they were doing the same.