When journalist Umar Cheema launched the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP) last week, he did so with a bang: A blockbuster story that hit the headlines around the world. Two-thirds of Pakistani MPs, his report said, do not pay their taxes. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari – famous for his spending sprees, polo games and luxurious country estates – and more than half the Cabinet.
One would think that given his history, Cheema would be more cautious about exposing wrongdoing. Two years ago, while driving home from a dinner, he was seized from his car by men in black commando garb. He was brought to a house where he was stripped naked, beaten and sexually assaulted. Unlike victims of similar abductions, Cheema spoke out and said Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was responsible for the attack.
When I called him in Islamabad over the weekend, Cheema was still dealing with the furor raised by his tax story. He expected this. After all, he named names. In a 70-page booklet called, Representation without Taxation, which was released online and in a press conference last week, he listed all the members of Parliament who who didn’t pay any tax at all. He also published the names of those who had paid taxes in 2011 and the amounts they remitted to the government.
MPs roundly denied the charges and accused Cheema of being on the payroll of their rivals and of timing the report for the elections, which will likely be held in the spring. “The opposition and the administration have joined hands to wage attacks on me and malign me,” he said. But he could document each and every charge, including the last rupee of tax paid. It took six months, he said, to gather the information, verify and then verify again. He knew that he would pay dearly for any mistake. “We were doing naming and shaming,” he said, “and we had to be extra careful.”
As investigative reporter for The News, Cheema had taken on the military and the intelligence services and exposed Zardari’s corruption. Now he is on his biggest story yet.
Last week, on a visit to the modest Jakarta office of the feisty Indonesian newsmagazine Tempo, I was told about one of the magazine’s proudest moments.
Now Tempo has a lot of proud moments. Founded in 1971 in the glory days of the Suharto dictatorship, it has always been an independent and credible voice. In 1994, in what would be later remembered as marking the beginning of the end of the Suharto era, the Indonesian information ministry shut down Tempo and two other publications for reporting on a government purchase of overpriced warships. Banned Tempo journalists helped set up underground newspapers, an independent journalist’s association to counter the government-sponsored one, and because the regime hadn’t yet figured out the internet, a site called Tempo Online.
Reopened in 1999, shortly after Suharto’s fall, Tempo remains the most influential and respected newsmagazine in Indonesia. But the country has changed. Indonesia is now a democracy with competitive elections and a rambunctious and free-wheeling press. It’s also in the midst of a digital revolution. The country is one of the fastest-growing mobile and tablet markets in Asia. Mobile-phone subscriptions are cheap here, with basic monthly data plans starting at $5, giving rise to what Tempo executive Bambang Harymurti calls “Facebook phones” – inexpensive handsets used mainly for getting access to the social networking site. It’s estimated that Indonesia will have 150 million people online by 2014, making it the 11th largest internet user in the world. Most of them will likely be accessing the internet through mobile devices. Read the rest of this entry »
I’m leafing through an interesting little book called, How to Pay a Bribe. It’s a compilation of articles written by journalists, lawyers and private investigators. Intended largely for companies operating overseas, the book provides tips on how to avoid being prosecuted for corruption. It’s worthwhile reading for journalists if only because it documents the various forms of state-of-the-art bribery. If there’s food porn, this is corruption porn.
Here’s a titillating quote from an unidentified oil middleman interviewed by the journalist Ken Silverstein; “You used to give a dictator a suitcase of dollars; now you give a tip on your stock shares, or buy a housing estate from his uncle or mother for ten times it’s worth.”
There are other ways to pay a bribe. Some are tried and true, and have been seen in various places; others are country-specific, like the very discreet “elegant bribery” practiced in China, described more fully below. Here are some of the juiciest examples – both crass and elegant – of the various forms of bribe-giving chronicled in How to Pay a Bribe:
The Summer School sponsored by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network ended yesterday, and as the participants got ready to leave the picturesque mountain town of Mavrovo, Macedonia, talk inevitably turned to the bad state of roads in the Balkans. Most of the journalists were driving back home, taking journeys that will last five to 11 hours on highways that have seen better days.
Many of them traced the sad state of public works in the region to corruption. It’s a lament that’s heard in many other places as well. Yesterday, the ramp of an eight-lane bridge collapsed in Harbin, northern China. Reports say the bridge was just nine months old and was the sixth major bridge to have collapsed in that country in the past year. Citizens have blamed corruption and the frenetic speed of construction for the shoddy infrastructure.
Secrecy is deeply embedded in Swiss political, bureaucratic and business culture. It’s of course not surprising that the world’s banking capital puts a premium on discretion and confidentiality. Switzerland is still a preferred location for companies and rich individuals around the world because it offers tax and other advantages, including political stability and a low level of transparency. Many journalists probing business, corruption, and even organized crime are bound to encounter either a Swiss bank account or a Swiss company in the course of their reporting. And getting information on them is not going to be easy.
But even in Switzerland, the walls of secrecy are slowly being breached. Banking secrecy there is no longer as ironclad as it used to be, after the U.S. began aggressively forcing Swiss banks to open their records as part of an effort to collect taxes from American citizens stashing their wealth overseas. Read the rest of this entry »
Large bribes paid to public officials are difficult to track. Hardly ever are the bribes delivered in suitcases of cash – although that has been known to happen. More often than not, bribes are paid through bank transfers made to “corporate vehicles” – companies, foundations and trusts – that have been set up to conceal illegally acquired wealth. As The Puppet Masters, a recent study by the World Bank, says, there’s a whole industry of “service providers” – law firms, notaries and secretarial companies – that exists mainly to help clients hide illegally acquired assets by setting up companies and other structures that obscure their real ownership. Read the rest of this entry »
Having grown up during the Marcos era, I have a morbid fascination with corruption that takes place on a grand scale. By the time their 20-year reign ended in 1986, Ferdinand Marcos and his glittering wife Imelda had amassed a fortune estimated at $10-$20 billion dollars and stashed in Swiss banks, artwork and real estate, including buildings in Manhattan.
The looting continues. Only now, for example, are we beginning to get an idea of the assets amassed by more recently fallen dictators. Muammar Gaddafi is said to have $200 billion in bank accounts, real estate and corporate investments worldwide. Hosni Mubarak’s fortune is estimated at $70 billion, including investments in companies and real estate in London, Manhattan and Beverly Hills. Read the rest of this entry »