In Pakistan, no taxation without investigation

In Pakistan, reporting on the military intelligence services or insurgent groups or machinations within political parties is the normal grist for the media mill. A lot of the coverage relies on reporters with inside sources. The sources use the media as a battleground for their infighting, relying on sympathetic reporters to put forward their positions. It keeps the wildly popular TV talk show hosts occupied and tends to fill the inside pages of newspapers, if not always the front pages. It’s not a problem unique to Pakistan, but the country’s media have taken it to a very high level.

What you do not see in Pakistan is a lot of hard-core investigative reporting, based on detailed analysis of public and private data. I raised this issue in a blog on Ayesha Haroon, a highly regarded editor who died in February 2013. “She was frank in her assessment of Pakistani journalism and the propensity for senior journalists to rely on favored sources to deliver analysis rather than dig for facts. It was an uphill battle, she said, to get younger reporters to go to sources for hard facts, rather than resort to their speed dials to plug in quick quotes,” I wrote.

One of Haroon’s proteges is Umar Cheema, who made the transition from mostly political and security reporting for The News to genuine investigative reporting. The change came after his abduction and sadistic attack in 2010 by what he says were members of Pakistan’s intelligence community. The attack prompted Cheema, a winner of CPJ’s 2011 International Press Freedom Awards, to reflect on his role as a journalist. Eventually, he launched the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP), which has focused on detailed analyses of tax records and who, among the rich, famous, and politically well-connected, has not been paying their taxes. It turns out that’s just about every one of these people.

CIRP’s work was so effective that the government just released its list of people and organizations which actually exist on Pakistan’s official tax list and how much they have paid. With The Citizens Tax Directory now online, Pakistan becomes only the fourth country in the world to do this, Cheema told me in an email. The directory contains records of all those registered with tax authorities, companies and individuals, no matter if they have paid taxes or not.

This is more than a shaming exercise as some news reports have claimed. The International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) most recent loan to Pakistan came to about $6.7 billion, and the country survives on its cash inflows to fill the huge gaps left by the unpaid taxes of most of its citizens and corporations. The IMF says an improvement in that record is part of its loan conditions being fulfilled. A more comprehensive look can be found in Sheila Coronel’s explainer on the Global Investigative Journalism website, Reporting that Makes an Impact? Some Answers from Pakistan. (Full disclosure: Coronel, who is academic dean at Columbia University’s journalism school, is a member of CPJ’s board of directors.) Also, the Washington-based Tax Notes International did a 3500-word report on CIRP’s series.

While I was in Islamabad on a very rainy day in March this year, Cheema took me to lunch. He told me of his zeal for what he is doing. He calls himself a “social change entrepreneur,” a role in which he says feels increasingly comfortable. He was frank in describing the risks his work involves in taking on the country’s ruling class. Like many other Pakistani journalists, the threat level he lives with is significant. And he told me he is trying to find long-term funding for CIRP that will not compromise its institutional integrity. I had only a few ideas, which he is weighing. CIRP is important because of its investigations into tax evasion in Pakistan. But it is even more important because it shows what a well-intentioned, determined, and diligent reporter can accomplish, largely on his own, by practicing basic journalism.