Pakistan News

Bait and switch

Bait and switch

IF you happened to read any major newspaper last Thursday, you couldn’t have missed a half-page ad placed by the government of Pakistan. With a title reading “lies always get exposed”, the advertisement featured two headlines from stories printed a day before, along with a clarification from the Inter­national Consortium of Investigative Journa­lists. The text of the ad also poured calumny upon those who had ‘falsely’ accused the prime minister of owning offshore companies, lambasting those ne’er do wells as enemies of progress and, by implication, of democracy.

But what are these lies that have now been exposed? For that we have to go back a day and look at stories published in two local newspapers about how Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s name was ‘mistakenly’ added to the Panama Papers.

The issue was that in its original publication, the ICIJ wrote that “The files exposed offshore companies controlled by the prime ministers of Iceland and Pakistan, the king of Saudi Arabia and the children of the president of Azerbaijan”.

Apparently after PML-N leader Daniyal Aziz wrote a letter to the ICIJ complaining of “inaccuracies and discrepancies” in the report, the line was corrected and the ICIJ issued a clarification that reads as follows: “Due to an editing error, a sentence in an earlier version of this story implied that the prime minister of Pakistan controlled an offshore company that appeared in the Panama Papers. It is his children who control the offshore companies.”

The story is thus factually correct; the ICIJ made an error which, once pointed out, was corrected and clarified. One could argue with the prominent placement of that story, but one cannot fault its accuracy.

However, the spin that the PML-N then put on it is anything but accurate. The clarification was taken as an exoneration of the prime minister and as an opportunity to blast his political opponents, but this line of propaganda wilfully ignored one crucial fact: no one had ever accused the prime minister of directly owning off shore companies in the first place.

Deluged by queries, the ICIJ was then forced to clarify its clarification, and its reply reads: “We simply made it more clear that the link to the PM was through his children. That was already clear but we made it more clear.” Denying that all mention of the prime minister had been withdrawn from the papers, the ICIJ stated: ‘The PM’s name is in the data, in reference to his children.”

To illustrate this point, note that British Prime Minister David Cameron is being questioned because of his father’s operating of an offshore fund, purportedly for the purposes of tax avoidance and possibly evasion. Similarly, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s name appears only in connection to his associates.

For the PML-N to hail this ‘apology’ as exoneration is akin to celebrating the release from prison of someone who was never incarcerated in the first place. And all this sound and fury is based on what was in all likelihood an editing error.

Curiously enough, the letter written by Daniyal Aziz also contains an editing error, with a line reading, “the chart currently placed under the link of my brother Hassan Nawaz is false and erroneous”. Somehow I doubt that the branches of his family tree extend to Raiwind, but as this is also no doubt an innocent error, let’s let the errors cancel each other out without requiring yet another clarification.

Let us also be clear that the prime minister has every right to defend himself and his family. The PML-N’s representatives also have every right to defend him. Let’s even say that they have the right to defend his children, given that an accusation on them is by extension an accusation on the prime minister. They have the right to spin, twist and change the topic all they want.

We’re a jaded lot, us Pakistanis. Eve­ry­­­­­­­day abuses of power no longer faze us, whether they are the car with MNA plates and armed guards running red lights, multi-million rupee scams or confessional videos of death row inmates magically appearing on TV screens.

But the fact that part of this defence is paid for not by party but public funds is especially ironic when you consider that the central issue here is of a financial nature to begin with. Now whether that’s cluelessness, chutzpah or simply a cynical calculation that the Pakistani voter just doesn’t care about such issues and will soon lose interest, is up for debate.

In any case, this is only one of a multi-tiered approach: while the prime minister takes the relatively high road and showers laptops and motorways wherever he treads, his party members launch counter-accusations at his opponents (mainly Imran Khan) in news conference after news conference. Talk about Shaukat Khanum hospital, protest outside Jemima Khan’s house, get bogged down in a swamp of ToRs…do nothing but bait and switch and bait again.

The PPP may believe that democracy is the best revenge, but the PML-N has clearly decided that distraction is the best defence.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2016

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