South Asia

Pakistani News Website Blocked for 18 Hours After Publishing Report on Assets of Army Chief, Kin

The Pakistan government said the investigative report published by 'FactFocus' was "problematic", and ordered a probe into the 'leak' of the tax records of General Qamar Javed Bajwa's family members. 

New Delhi: For nearly 18 hours, a Pakistan-based investigative news website was blocked by the country’s government after it published a report that the assets of close kin of Chief of Army Staff Qamar Javed Bajwa had increased exponentially in the last six years. The Pakistan government announced a probe into the ‘leak’ of the tax records of the Pakistani army chief.

On Sunday, FactFocus published a report claiming that as per tax records, the “current market value of the – known – assets and businesses within Pakistan and outside accumulated by the Bajwa family during the last six years is more than Rs 12.7 billion”. In Indian rupee terms, it translates to over Rs 462 crore, or $56.5 million.

The report alleged that the assets of General Bajwa’s wife, daughter-in-law and father-in-law had increased by billions of Pakistani rupees in the last six years. Immediately after publication, the website claimed that most netizens in Pakistan could not access it.

After no official response for a day, the Pakistani finance ministry on Monday, November 21, stated that a probe had been announced into the leak of the tax records. The website published copies of the tax returns and wealth statements submitted by General Bajwa, his wife, Ayesha Amjad and daughter-in-law, Mahnoor Sabir, from 2013 to 2021.

“Federal Minister for Finance and Revenue Senator Mohammad Ishaq Dar has taken serious notice of the illegal and unwarranted leakage of tax information of the family members of General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Army Staff (COAS). This is clearly violative of the complete confidentiality of tax information that the Law provides,” said the press statement.

It also announced that the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Revenue, Tariq Mehmood Pasha, would lead the investigation and submit a report within 24 hours on the “serious lapse on the part of to-date unknown functionaries”.

Following the announcement of the probe into the leak, the author of the FactFocus report, Ahmed Noorani, posted on his Twitter account that the government had confirmed the accuracy of his article.

Even as the finance ministry made the announcement, the website, FactFocus remained inaccessible to Pakistani web users. The traffic had been disrupted to the website soon after publication, with Twitter users posting screenshots of the blocked connection.

The website remained blocked for around 18 hours before internet traffic was restored on Monday, November 21 night.

Later in the night, Pakistan’s interior minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told Geo News that the website had been blocked as the article’s timing was “problematic”.

According to leaked records published by FactFocus, the assets of Bajwa’s wife rose from zero to Pakistani rupees 2.2 billion ($9.7 million) in six years. Further, the report also alleged that the total worth of Mahnoor Sabir rose from zero in the last week of October 2018 to Rs 1,271 million ($5.6 million) on Nov 2, 2018 – just weeks before her wedding.

According to the website, it could not access the tax records of Bajwa’s two sons.

Describing itself as a “Pakistan-based digital media news organisation working on data-based investigative news stories”, FactFocus has reported extensively on the financial assets of Pakistani army officers and their family members, which is not usually investigated in mainstream media in Pakistan. The Pakistani military continues to be the most powerful institution in the country.

Two years ago, the Pakistani news site published a report on the alleged offshore properties and businesses of retired Lieutenant General Asim Saleem Bajwa, former head of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor Authority.

It has also published tax records of former Pakistan PM Imran Khan to allege that he and his wife hadn’t declared the value of the foreign gifts they had retained at “throwaway prices”.

Khan is currently leading nationwide protests to force Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to have early elections. It had been widely believed that the Army’s backing had ensured Khan’s victory in the 2018 elections, but the former Pakistani cricket captain’s relationship with Rawalpindi had turned sour over the last year. He was ousted from power after losing a vote of confidence in parliament this April.

Because of the prevailing tensions, the head of the Pakistan military’s spy agency, ISI, was forced to make an unprecedented media appearance to douse allegations made by Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), against the Army. Khan responded that the press conference had only “lies and half-truths”.

Pakistan defence minister Khwaja Asif announced on Monday afternoon that the process of appointment of the next army chief has begun. Bajwa’s term is slated to end on November 29.

So far, none of the major political parties in Pakistan, the ruling PML-N nor the opposition PTI, have responded to the investigative report.