Yale Greenberg World Fellows Interview Series: Fakhar Durrani
Featured Image: Fakhar Durrani, Jackson School of Global Affairs World Fellow, Photo by Tony Fiorini
By Aleena Gul
Fakhar Durrani is a top Pakistani journalist working as a Special Investigative Correspondent for the English Daily The News, a publication of the country’s largest media group, Jang Group of Publications. As a leading member of the newspaper’s Investigation Cell, Mr. Durrani has done in-depth investigative stories on widespread corruption across government sectors, exposing the corrupt practices, frauds, embezzlement, and tax evasion of influential politicians and government officials. Most of Mr. Durrani’s report projects involved extensive work, often in high-risk situations and threats to his life. In addition to intimidation from various powerful circles in Pakistan, he faced defamation charges because of his courageous reporting. Mr. Durrani rose to prominence last year when he unearthed millions of dollars offshore companies of hundreds of Pakistanis as part of the widely known Pandora Papers. He was part of around 600 investigative journalists from around the world under the umbrella of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which published the Pandora Papers — the largest investigation in journalism history — exposing hundreds of global elite for tax evasions and widespread corruption. Before joining Daily The News, Mr. Durrani worked for the Dunya News Group. As a Humphery Scholar at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2002-21, he focused his studies on investigative journalism, multimedia journalism, and the digital security of journalists. He is a Yale Greenberg World Fellow for the year 2022 and recently talked with the Globalist about his career, challenges he has faced, and future ambitions. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Could you please share with us how you became part of the groundbreaking Pandora Papers investigation team? What were the criteria for joining this group of investigative journalists from around the world?
First of all, it was really an honor to be part of the Pandora Papers investigative team. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – a global network of investigative journalists – led the entire project and published the papers. ICIJ relies on its network of investigative journalists working around the world. One of my colleagues was part of the ICIJ, and I got in touch with them sometime back and started working with them on the Pandora papers; thus, I became part of this groundbreaking investigation project. The investigation focused on huge data set of about 12 million files related to the alleged corrupt practices of people from many countries around the world. A good number of Pakistanis were also among those offshore company holders, and I was lucky enough to work on the Pakistani chapter. That’s how I became part of the pandora papers.
How much time did it take to complete the reporting project? And could please describe your experience gathering, cross-checking, and verifying the information?
From receiving the huge amount of data to finalizing the investigation, the process took almost 18 months to more than a year. The kind of data we received from Pandora papers was in raw form, which needed a lot of work to go through, sort out, prioritize, and finalize before publishing. There was so much to work around the data. For example, one big challenge was sorting out names. In South Asia, individuals’ names are quite different compared to America, the United Kingdom, or any European country because most names are often spelled differently. Therefore, we had to verify the names of those individuals mentioned in the files. Once the names of those individuals were verified, the cross-checking of other information started. As part of the investigation, we had to go deeper to look for the assets, offshore businesses, and bank accounts of those individuals. The last part of the investigation was to contact those individuals and find their version of the story to verify whether all these offshore companies, properties, or offshore holdings and bank accounts belong to them. No one knew about the ongoing investigation until its final publication. The entire process was kept in secrecy due to the nature of the data and information and also for the security and protection of those journalists working on this project.
Which type of individuals did you try to focus on during the investigation in countries like Pakistan?
As journalists, we always focus on politicians because they are the key power holders in countries like Pakistan. We looked for famous and influential politicians both from ruling and opposition parties. For example, the ruling party at that time was Prime Minister Imran Khan’s political party: Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaft (PTI). We focused on his cabinet members and close allies. We also focused on the incumbent Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and his family because their names also appeared in the Panama Papers. In addition to politicians, we focused on Pakistan’s bureaucracy – civilians and military.
Pakistan’s journalists are some of the most courageous in the world. They have been working in dangerous zones and difficult conditions, and many have been abducted, tortured, or killed, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Did you face any challenges because of your reporting?
In 2020, some media organizations ran campaigns against me. Arshad Sharif, the leading journalist who ran this campaign, had a separate program against me and claimed that I sold secret information about general Asim Saleem Bajwa to Indian military officials. Arshad Sharif and ARY News ran almost 56 programs against me in 2020. My life was under threat, not just mine but also my kids’ life. If you are labeled as an Indian agent or a traitor, your journalist career is gone. Your social and personal life is also disturbed because of these kinds of allegations. They displayed my pictures on TV screens, and at that time, I had to pull my kids out of school because their fellow students were harassing them.
In a country like Pakistan, you don’t have any facility for mental trauma so that you can get some mental or psychological help. So it was quite a difficult time for me, but I had no option but to challenge them in court. I filed a case against ARY and government institutions at that time in Islamabad High Court, and I was lucky enough that all these programs were aired in the UK as well. Just ten days ago, I received a decision in my favor. It’s unfortunate for us as journalists – Pakistan journalists –that when we become a party in these kinds of issues, we either heed the military or oppose them. It’s dangerous, so we need to be impartial. We just need to state and report the facts only. We should never become partisan journalists. When we become part of these kinds of issues, it’s a harsh lesson for us. When journalists ignore journalistic principles and go beyond their limitations, they ultimately have to face the consequences.
In such situations, what were your reasons for choosing journalism as a profession?
When you work as a journalist or enter this profession, all your personal and social life is almost gone. The first reason for not being able to work in any other profession is because I love journalism. The second reason is that I have dedicated 15 years to this profession, and I’ll be doing a great injustice, not only to myself but to my family and to my society if I quit just because of the threats. These threats are part of your life if you’re working in a developing country like Pakistan. Either you have to face it, or if you are afraid of these kinds of threats, then it’s better you should not join this profession. I joined this profession keeping all these challenges in view, so it’s a passion for me.
Amid the fast-changing media landscape, how important is the value of investigative journalism in today’s world?
I think we need to continue investigative reporting about all important issues, particularly those involving corruption such as tax evasion or money laundering and other similar practices. We need to highlight white-collar crimes through our investigative journalism. I believe that these kinds of investigations will keep coming since, in most developing countries, people steal money. They launder it through legal or illegal channels, building their empires outside their countries. Investigative journalism is needed more than ever in developing countries.
What led you to the world Fellows program and what are your future plans?
It is an honor for me to be selected for the Yale World Fellows Program and join the current cohort of highly accomplished professionals. I think I’m one of the youngest among the current fellows – they are truly more accomplished and they have done a lot in their careers. As a journalist, I always want to expand my knowledge and learn new things wherever I get the opportunity. This was the first thing on my mind while applying for the program – that I would be interacting with some of the world’s most brilliant minds as part of this fellowship at Yale University. I was not sure whether I would be selected or not. As a Yale World Fellow, I don’t want to miss a single opportunity to learn from my fellow colleagues. This is a great opportunity, and every day I am learning something new from them.
As for my next goal, I am interested in hosting a TV program in Pakistan. I think this fellowship would help me get out of my comfort zone and provide me with opportunities to further improve my communication skills – those are the new skills I would need for hosting a TV show. I’m very excited and hopeful for the next stage of my career after returning to my home country, Pakistan.
Aleena Gul is a first-year in Timothy Dwight College. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.