Maryam Nawaz Sharif, the daughter of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, triggered a new controversy on Tuesday when she took to social media to attack the authenticity of the Panama Papers and the journalists who exposed them.
Her tweets came as the Supreme Court announced the formation of a three-member bench to monitor progress on the investigation it had ordered in its April 20 verdict, where it had also ordered the constitution of a joint investigation team (JIT) consisting of personnel from various military and civil investigative agencies.
In a series of tweets, sent out after the prime minister’s address in Layyah, Ms Sharif dismissed the Panama Papers as “crap”. She said the leaks had been “trashed in the rest of the world”, adding: “Those relying on it to bring down [Nawaz Sharif will] bite the dust Insha’Allah”.
“Panama papers were never about corruption. Even the stealers & hackers (read originators) didn’t say it was. Losers in imminent danger of being swept away in 2018 pounced upon the conspiracy hatched by evil minds,” she tweeted.
Directly addressing the PML-N’s arch-rival, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), in her next tweet, she said: “You won’t be able to present Panama Papers as a substitute or compensation for [your] dismal performance in KP. Electorate has matured, you haven’t.”
She then took to criticising journalists who had reported the story, saying: “The misery of jou¬rnalists who broke the Panama story is understandable. Their overt & covert efforts to bring the govt down came to a naught.”
The oblique reference to unnamed journalists would have remained a mystery had Bastian Obermayer, the Pulitzer-winning Süddeutsche Zeitung reporter who broke the Panama Papers story in April last year, not jumped into the fray.
“Sorry to tell you: Panama Papers ARE about corruption. We found an astonishing number of corruption cases in the documents — and all real,” he tweeted in response to the prime minister’s daughter.
She followed this up with a screenshot from the Interna¬tional Consortium of Investi¬gative Journalists (ICIJ), which contained a disclaimer the organisation had attached with its reporting.
“There are legitimate uses for offshore companies, foundations and trusts. We do not intend to suggest or imply that any person, companies or entities included in the [ICIJ’s reporting] have broken the law or otherwise acted improperly.”
Mr Obermayer then respon¬ded, saying: “Journalism isn’t about bringing down a [government]. It’s about telling the truth. Like it or not,” adding that the Panama Papers weren’t only about Pakistan.
At this point, Mr Obermayer’s colleague and fellow Pulitzer winner Frederik Obermaier also jumped into the fray. Taking exception to Ms Sharif’s insinuation that the Panama Papers were “trashed in the rest of the world”, he tweeted that the leaks had led to “[over] 150 investigations, audits & investigations in [over] 80 countries”.
He also posted several screenshots, including an image of what is purportedly Ms Sharif’s passport — attached with documents contained in the Panama Papers — and asked her: “Dear [Maryam Nawaz Sharif], do you want to claim this is not your passport?
When asked what may have prompted these tweets, Bas¬tian Obermayer told Dawn: “I don’t know why she tweeted what she tweeted, looks like party politics.”
He claimed his response to Ms Sharif’s tweet was “generally about the Panama Papers”. When asked whether her reference to the “misery of journalists” could have been an allusion to his organisation, Mr Obermayer was unequivocal. “I have no relationship to any of her rivals,” he said.
However, he maintained that the authenticity of the Panama Papers had never been challenged or disproved. “To my best knowledge, no other head of state has challenged [their] veracity… not even Vladimir Putin, whose best friend we found in the centre of a number of offshore companies.”
When asked what prompted Ms Sharif to tweet about the Panama Papers, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson Mussadiq Malik told Dawn she wanted to negate the impression — created by the opposition — that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had been indicted in the Panamagate case.
He said Ms Sharif termed the Panama Papers “crap” because there was no proof that any sort of corruption was committed in Panama Papers. “Therefore, all such allegations by the opposition are crap and trash,” he added.
Mr Malik said that nowhere had the SC said that corruption was committed in the Panama Papers.
“The apex court has ordered further investigation of the case by a JIT to ascertain whether any corruption had been committed or not,” he said.
He said Ms Sharif’s tweets were also meant to dispel the impression that the five apex court judges had given five separate decisions. “A murder accused cannot be hanged if two judges in a five-judge bench rule against him,” he said.
The prime minister’s spokesperson said establishing offshore companies in a legal way was not a crime. “If this is a crime, then it was first committed by PTI Chairman Imran Khan, who set up Pakistan’s first offshore firm in the name of Niazi Services,” he said.
He also decried a section of the media who, he said, were airing unsubstantiated documents as proof of the Sharif family’s alleged corruption. “We are not happy with this,” he concluded.
The exchange between Ms Sharif and the Süddeutsche Zeitung reporters drew a lot of attention on mainstream and social media. In a series of messages, the PTI’s official Twitter account lashed out at Ms Sharif’s contentions, saying: “The Panama Papers that Maryam Nawaz Sharif is terming a conspiracy have already led to resignations of ministers around the world.”
Taking a sarcastic jibe at the PM’s daughter, the PTI tweeted: “Probably [Maryam Nawaz Sharif] deems Panama is “trashed” in rest of the world because rest of the world took action last year already”.
The party also gave the examples of British PM David Cameron who had to justify his father’s assets before parliament, and the Icelandic PM who stepped down in the wake of the revelations. “In democratic societies, accused step down themselves,” the party tweeted.
Incidentally, Ms Sharif’s tweetstorm — the term used to describe such diatribes in cyberspace — came soon after Maltese PM Joseph Muscat dissolved parliament and announced snap elections in his country.
Mr Muscat had promised to resign if a government inquiry found a connection between him or his wife and offshore companies in the Panama Papers, and is currently continuing in office as caretaker PM until elections are held on June 3.