Investigative journalists working with Jordan’s Community Media Network – which runs AmmanNet and Radio al Balad, and which I am proud to manage – were among the hundreds of professional journalists worldwide carefully selected by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) on the basis of geography and previous experience to participate in coverage of the millions of leaked documents known as the “Panama Papers”.
For our part of the project, we were given information on more than a thousand Jordanian citizens who had set up offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands, Jersey or Luxembourg. The information included company registration, the names of the real company owners and email exchanges between these owners and the Panama-based Mossack Fonseca law firm, now famous for registering companies in tax havens.
While the natural priority in such cases is to investigate individuals of high political calibre, such as government officials, we preferred to look at someone other than the only senior official whose name appeared on the list made available to us – Ali Abu al-Ragheb, Jordan’s prime minister from 2000-2003, who had a number of companies registered in his name. For us, the name Khaled Shaheen was much more interesting. He had the largest number of companies registered offshore – 26 – and the web of companies that the Panama Papers revealed helped explain many corruption stories that the public was not aware of.
But having chosen a person – Shaheen – who had been convicted and had spent time in jail, while avoiding a former prime minister, has not been enough to keep us out of hot water. While no one has officially complained or attempted directly to stop us, we have been under various forms of indirect pressure, including from lawyers and phone calls from security officials.
The Jordanian government has not cooperated at all with our investigation. Requests to Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour and to the national company register for information about Jordanian offshore companies involved in current public government tenders went unanswered. The prime minister stated following publication of the Panama Papers that there had not been any corruption issue in Jordan in the last five years.
But the only way that this statement could be verified is if the government were totally transparent about an issue such as the participation of these anonymously owned offshore companies in tenders over that time period. While being registered offshore is not by itself proof of corruption, the fact that companies whose owners are not known participate in Jordanian tenders opens up huge questions as to whether any government officials had a conflict of interest by possibly being an owner in one or more of these offshore companies.
Perhaps the most interesting, though not the most surprising, aspect of the research and publication of the Jordanian leg of the Panama Papers is the utter failure of the rest of the Jordanian media to pick up on the story or to publish follow-up stories and opinions. While the two partly government-owned newspapers Al Raiand Ad Dustour completely avoided the subject, the independent daily Al Ghad did write about the global repercussions of the Panama Papers, but failed to tackle the local issues revealed by our investigation.
The failure to follow up on this important public issue leaves open the question of how independent the Jordanian media is and whether media outlets are also implicated in problems of conflict of interest or even, possibly, of being part of offshore company schemes.
The digital revolution has provided professional investigative journalists with a unique opportunity to deal with documents and facts that have never been available to them through normal access to information laws. If the experience of the Panama Papers has proven anything, it has shown that efforts by governments and the private sector to keep basic information away from the public is utterly useless in an age of leaked information and well-organised and networked investigative journalists.
Daoud Kuttab is general director of the Community Media Network (which runs AmmanNet and Radio al Balad) and a member of the International Press Institute’s (IPI) Executive Board.