“This is the third major ICIJ exposé in recent years. Prior to this, the Washington-based journalist body, published in 2016 the Panama Papers, which had some 65 Sri Lankan names, and in 2017 the Paradise Papers”
The October 3 exposé by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) was shocking though not unexpected. This is because public perception is that most politicians and business tycoons are usually corrupt. Their corruption reaches dizzy levels beyond the tolerable limits; yet in many countries, people have learn to live with it.
Called the Pandora Papers, the exposé was the outcome of a painstaking investigation by some 600 journalists from 117 countries for two years. The mega leak made international headlines with the ICIJ releasing a series of articles based on 11.9 million leaked or hacked files — amounting to nearly three terabytes of data — from 14 companies that help unscrupulous politicians and businessmen to avoid paying taxes, set up shell companies and invest their ill-gotten money in places where no questions are asked.
Dubbed the largest exposé in history because of the sheer scale of the data, the Pandora Papers uncover the financial secrets of some 35 present and past world leaders and 330 politicians, public officials and celebrities in 91 counties and territories. Among them, were a highly-connected ‘power couple’ from Sri Lanka – one-time deputy minister Nirupama Rajapaksa and her billionaire businessman husband Thiru Nadesan.
Ms. Rajapaksa and Mr. Nadesan declined comment when ICIJ journalists sought their response to the revelation that they possessed rare and valuable artworks and wealth to the tune of more than $160 million, as shown in Mr. Nadesan’s emails to Asiaciti, a Singapore-based financial service company. However, on Wednesday, Mr. Nadesan denied any wrongdoing and urged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to launch a probe headed by a retired judge. This came after the President, in a somewhat delayed response, ordered the Commission to Investigate Allegation of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) to conduct a probe on the ICIJ exposé on the Sri Lankans named in the Pandora Papers and submit a report within a month.
The Pandora Papers are not the first of their kind. This is the third major ICIJ exposé in recent years. Prior to this, the Washington-based journalist body, published in 2016 the Panama Papers, which had some 65 Sri Lankan names, and in 2017 the Paradise Papers. The irony was that little happened in Sri Lanka in terms of follow-up action, although the then government came to office on a pledge to eliminate corruption. It feigned a corruption hunt and got involved in a massive Central Bank Bond scam.
Unlike the then Sri Lanka government, the Pakistan government took action against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family members named in the Panama Papers. They were found guilty and sentenced to jail. The Shariffs were linked to offshore companies that owned luxury flats in posh neighbourhoods in London, according to leaked files of Mossack Fonseca, a Panama-based law firm that provided financial advice to wealthy clients.
The first head to roll after the 2016 Panama Papers was that of Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson. He resigned amid protests after the documents hacked from the Panamanian company revealed his links to an offshore company.
Although Mossack Fonseca may be no more or is existing in another name, there is no dearth of such companies in tax havens such as the Virgins Islands, the Channel Islands, Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai, Seychelles, Cyprus, Panama and as, revealed by the Pandora Papers, even the United States’ South Dakota, Florida, Nevada and Delaware. The US states named in the Pandora Papers allow trust companies to attract the rich and the wealthy to stash their undeclared money. Sri Lanka’s Chinese-built Financial City could also become a tax haven and be featured in a future ICIJ exposé, if the authorities are not circumspect.
The Pandora Papers show the scale of corruption in nations which are being robbed in the form of tax evasion. As a result, these nations are denied the much needed funds for public welfare. In many countries, poverty is aggravated by corruption. The ICIJ revelation also highlights the market economy’s dark side and a shadow financial system where financial service providers are ready to serve corrupt politicos, business tycoons and even celebrities. These companies know how to stay several steps ahead of the long arm of the law. They specialize in giving advice to super rich clients and dirty politicos on how to do the wrong thing in the right way. The Pandora Papers reveal that former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has benefited from such advice and avoided paying as much as US$ 400,000 as annual tax to the British government.
Corruption thrives because more often than not the culprits are lawmakers or connected to lawmakers. No wonder, laws in kleptocracies are often defective with plenty of loopholes for the corrupt to pass through.
Corruption is a pandemic worse than the COVID-19 pandemic because there is hope that medical science will soon succeed in taming the coronavirus, but no such hope can be entertained with regard to corruption.
The corruption pandemic has even hit the European Union nations. A recent report by the Transparency International said that while people had been struggling with the COVID-19 crisis, many politicians in the European Union found new opportunities to consolidate their wealth and power by colluding with businesses, restricting civic liberties and side-stepping anti-corruption measures.
In recent weeks and months, Sri Lankans have been bombarded with a series of corruption scandals, ranging from the sugar scam to the recent garlic scam and the deletion of 1.1 million files from the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) database. The data scam was described by the country’s Deputy Solicitor General Dileepa Peiris in court on Wednesday as a racket involving an unholy trinity comprising the regulator, a private digital service company and the pharmaceutical businesses. He told court the conspirators had turned the corona Vasangathaya (corona pandemic) into a corona Vasanava and Vasanthaya (corona luck and spring).
When talking about corruption investigations in developing countries, probes usually end up in never-to-be-retrieved archives, unless there is a political witch-hunt or a political advantage to gain. A wide gap exists between exposés and convictions of the highly connected corrupt people.
Although investigations are continuing and some suspects have been produced in court with regard to the garlic scam and the NMRA data scam, there is little trust in the system. Most Sri Lankans seem to be sick and tired of reacting in shock to news about corruption. A sense of despondency is preventing them from rising up against corruption. They wait till the next election to vote a corrupt lot out. This is counterproductive and an encouragement to corruption. It is akin to allowing a burglar to rob your goods in the hope that police will come and catch him. By the time the police come, the thief has run away with your valuables.
In social media, the young and the tech-savvy let out their frustration over unchecked corruption. But that is not enough. The voice against corruption should be heard loud and clear in public places with a call to depoliticize key institutions, the independence of which is vital for graft busting.