THAT the Mail on Sunday has retracted and issued an apology for allegations in a defamatory article against Shehbaz Sharif will indeed come as a relief to the prime minister and his party. The article, published in 2019 by the British tabloid, alleged that Mr Sharif stole aid money sent by the British government for victims of the 2005 earthquake and laundered it to the UK. When it first came out, it was used to politically damage the Sharif family, with members of the then prime minister Imran Khan’s cabinet celebrating the story as ‘evidence’ of corruption and challenging Mr Sharif to sue the paper, which he did in 2020. Three years after its publication, the article has been removed and an apology tendered to Mr Sharif — even if it is peculiarly worded and doesn’t address the multiple allegations made against him about illegal transfers and laundering money. Still, the article’s removal and the fact that the publisher preferred not to defend the story in court shows what little evidence the paper had to back its serious allegations.
It is important to reflect on the political climate when this story was published. Soon after the PTI came to power, Mr Khan’s preoccupation with corruption and accountability was at its zenith, with the likes of Shahzad Akbar creating the Asset Recovery Unit to purportedly ‘bring back looted millions’. Not only was reporter David Rose given access to the investigation by members of the government, he was also able to meet and interview suspects in custody. At the time, Mr Akbar in several interviews to Dawn, had claimed Mr Sharif would lose his defamation suit as there was ‘plenty of evidence in the NAB references against him’ that would help the paper mount a defence. But not only did Mr Sharif succeed in his claim, Mr Akbar, who was once Mr Khan’s blue-eyed boy, was unceremoniously removed over poor performance. In fact, at the end of the day, Mr Khan’s entire accountability witch-hunt achieved few results. Not only is this case a win for the PML-N, it is also a blow for Mr Khan as it contradicts his corruption narrative against his rivals — an obsession that was backed only by lofty, scandalous claims and no hard evidence. It is Pakistan’s misfortune that allegations of this nature — which also embarrassed international donors and raised questions about Pakistan’s disaster relief programmes — could be levelled by those in power just to attack political opponents.
Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2022