Disclosing tax data

The Swedish Tax Calendar (above) lists the incomes and taxes paid by all Swedish citizens. In most other countries, data on individual taxes is secret and made public only because of leaks and court orders. But a public interest argument can be made for mandating that the highest officials disclose the taxes. they paid.

The Swedish Tax Calendar (above) lists the incomes and taxes paid by all Swedish citizens. In most other countries, data on individual taxes is secret and made public only because of leaks and court orders. But a public interest argument can be made for mandating that the highest officials disclose the taxes they paid.

In 2008, Italy’s deputy finance minister published online the declared incomes and corresponding taxes paid by everyone in the country. Vincenzo Visco had led the government’s campaign against tax evasion and believed that Italy’s debt had reached disastrous levels. He said the publication of tax data was “an exercise of transparency, of democracy.” That exercise, however, quickly ended as Italy’s data protection agency ordered the information taken down after a day, saying that its publication violated privacy.

Taxes most everywhere are a controversial issue – just ask Gerard Depardieu, who fled the high taxes of his native France and accepted the offer of Russian citizenship last week. Around the world, many governments are proposing painful solutions to the problem of public debt and imposing heavier tax burdens on citizens. As government services are cut because public coffers are bare, public attention is shifting to the taxes paid – or not paid – by the wealthy and the privileged.

The problem with investigating the taxes paid by individuals is that this information is confidential. And since Visco’s exercise in pique, no country has followed Italy’s example. The exception is Scandinavia, where tax information has been public for over a century (more on how to access this information below). In some countries, too, it’s customary, though not mandatory, for candidates for the highest office to disclose their tax returns. Even in secretive Ukraine, candidates in the last election made public their tax ID numbers and their properties.

There’s been a lot of progress in the last two decades in legislating the disclosure of the assets of officials. The World Bank says that 78 percent of 176 countries it surveyed recently had financial disclosure systems, although only 42 percent made the disclosures public. Asset disclosures, says the Bank, are essential to fighting corruption, illicit enrichment and tax crimes. A public-interest argument can be made that tax disclosures are also a crucial anticorruption tool, yet only a few countries – and no international financial institution – have proposed making such data open.

But if officials are already required to declare their income and assets, why shouldn’t they be required to make public their tax payments as well? It’s hard to argue that revealing information on private taxpayers is in the public interest. But government officials are supposed to set the example for tax compliance because they are the custodians of the public purse. Because they decide how the burden of tax payments is shared, then citizens should be told whether those they elect to office are carrying their fair share of that burden. There can be persuasive arguments as to why heads of state, Cabinet ministers and members of national legislatures should declare their taxes. Read the rest of this entry »

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How to do investigative reporting in Pakistan

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.

how toMPs 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.

Read the rest of this entry »