The Panama Papers Arrive in Tunis

Corruption has continued to fester in post-uprising Tunisia, but new leaks from the Panama Papers may spur real reform.

Starting in April, the investigative Tunisian website Inkyfada, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), published five articles based on information revealed in the Panama Papers. Of the 11.5 million documents leaked from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca detailing how and where the world’s elite hide their wealth from taxation, around 8,000 mention Tunisia, according to Inkyfada’s publishing manager. So far, these documents have implicated a number of Tunisian politicians and businessmen.

The initial response of the political class was to treat the leaked reports either as partisan fodder—a new kind of mud to sling back and forth with their opponents—or as defamation by the reporters. Meanwhile, many ordinary citizens initially shrugged at the leaks, viewing corruption as a normal, banal part of their daily interactions with state bureaucrats. Yet anti-corruption activists see the leaks as an opportunity to push for real reform, especially as politicians have struggled to respond to the allegations and state institutions have announced new investigative initiatives.

Inkyfada’s first report, published on April 4, revealed that Mohsen Marzouk, the former Secretary General of the governing Nidaa Tounes party and founder of a new political movement called Machrou Tounes (Tunisia Project), sent two emails in early December 2014 to Mossack Fonseca inquiring how to open an offshore business. This was soon before the second round of the Tunisian presidential election, in which Marzouk was working as the campaign manager for Beji Caid Essebsi, now president.

The report provoked quick and forceful reactions. The Inkyfada website was hacked the following night and a fake article appeared falsely alleging that Moncef Marzouki—Tunisia’s former president and Essebsi’s rival in the 2014 presidential run-off election—had appeared in the Panama Papers. Even though Inkyfada quickly shut down its own website until it could regain control and issued a statement clarifying that Marzouki does not have any links to the Panama Papers, the false claim was republished in other media outlets. Meanwhile, in response to the initial report, Marzouk said on April 6 that he had filed a lawsuit against Inkyfada for defamation. Marzouk later retracted the lawsuit on April 28 and announced that he would collaborate with the National Anti-Corruption Authority (INLUCC), after his own lawyer admitted that the lawsuit would be difficult to win.

After this first Inkyfada report and a second report on businessman and politician Samir Abdelli, Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda party, said in an interview on April 11 that the leaks were going to “change the country’s political landscape.” However, less than a week later, Inkyfada published a new article detailing the offshore finances of private TV station TNN (Tunisia News Network), which allegedly has business ties to high profile members of Ennahda. Even though no Ennahda member has yet been shown to have direct contact with Mossack Fonseca, Ghannouchi subsequently backtracked on his statements. Nevertheless, he seemed to follow Marzouk’s example by announcing through his official Facebook page that he would take legal action against the website.

Beginning in May, Inkyfada published a fourth article showing that Noomane Fehri, the current Minister of Communication Technologies and Digital Economy, was in the 1990s one of two stakeholders in, and later the director of, an offshore company. He later resigned and dissolved the company in 2011, just after being elected as a member of the National Constituent Assembly. Fehri confirmed these facts, both to Inkyfada and on his Facebook page, stating that his actions were legal. In contrast to other politicians named in the leaks, Fehri also thanked the journalists for their investigative work. This provoked some positive feedback on the social network, with a group of users expressing respect for the minister’s frankness.

Fehri’s example aside, these contradictory and vacillating responses indicate that for some of the concerned, corruption is a matter of party politics rather than a public policy challenge. But more importantly, the leaks are prompting state institutions to take action. Tunisia may be a country where politicians have filed lawsuits against journalists reporting on the Panama Papers, but it is also a country in the region where government bodies responded by ordering investigations. The Ministry of Finance ordered the customs administration and the tax administration to open investigations. The Ministry of State Property and Land Affairs, in coordination with the Ministry of Justice and the Tunisian Central Bank, indicated that it would bring to justice anyone proven to be implicated in wrongdoing. Tunisia’s National Anti-Corruption Authority (INLUCC) asked Inkyfada to collaborate with them, and a parliamentary investigation commission has been set up as well. The Independent High Authority for Audio-visual Communication (HAICA), a media regulatory agency, also announced that it would investigate the TV channel TNN.

It is still unclear whether these new measures will be effective, especially since similar measures in the past have had limited success. The corruption of the ruling Ben Ali family prior to the 2011 uprising was well documented, but little has been done in terms of prosecution. There have been various investigation commissions, such as that led by legal specialist Abdelfattah Amor in 2011, which published a several-hundred page report in November that year detailing cases of fraud and corruption during Ben Ali’s era. Still, this investigation hasn’t done much to reform continuing systemic corruption.

Other state-funded bodies have also been tasked with shedding light on corruption. Article 130 of the 2014 constitution requires parliament to set up a permanent anti-corruption body to take over the work of the temporary INLUCC. INLUCC has been chronically underfunded and understaffed: fewer than a dozen judges are handling the more than 9000 corruption cases that it has compiled and presented. Amor’s report, the fate of INLUCC, and the failure to set up a permanent anti-corruption body suggest there has been no political will to seriously tackle corruption.

The task had largely fallen to a few outspoken investigative outlets and civil society groups. This includes a recent investigation by the website Nawaat into missing funds and irregular documentation at the Banque Franco–Tunisienne, a branch of the STB Bank, of which the Tunisian state is a majority shareholder. The Panama Papers leak is just the latest and biggest in a trend that has seen increased media coverage of corruption and greater public awareness. In a survey published by Transparency International in May, over 60 percent of Tunisians said they felt corruption had increased over the past year. This perception doesn’t necessarily relate to judicial treatment of corruption. For example, Marzouk’s reported email inquiry to Mossack Fonseza is unlikely to have any legal consequences in Tunisia, yet many Tunisians interpret his actions as confirming public sentiment that corruption among politicians is widespread.

Roughly half of Tunisian respondents to the Transparency International poll said they fear reporting on corruption due to fear of retaliation. However, more than 70 percent say they think ordinary people can make a difference, and there is a greater push for government action. A new draft law that aims to protect whistleblowers seems to be finally on the agenda of the Ministry of Public Service, Governance, and the Fight Against Corruption after more than a year of discussion between government and civil society. Anti-corruption activists believe that given the shift in public perceptions about corruption and the increasing media coverage, now is the time to be heard and have a positive impact. “Whoever opposes a strict legal framework [for dealing with corruption] automatically becomes a suspect today,” explained Mouheb Garoui, the executive director of IWatch, the Tunisian partner of Transparency International.1 Garoui, like other activists, hopes a change in public attitude will put public pressure on lawmakers.

Since 2011, much of the social and labor unrest in the interior regions of the country was sparked by non-transparent recruitment procedures, perceptions of nepotism within the public sector, and suspicions of fraud and embezzlement by civil servants. As corruption likewise has a severe negative impact on investment and economic development, Tunisian and foreign entrepreneurs alike deplore not only slow administrative procedures but also the direct costs of corruption. Seen in this light, combating corruption could go a long way to bringing order and stability to the Tunisian economy, which in turn is a prerequisite to continuing democratic reforms. With so much corruption in the headlines, now may be the ideal moment for Tunisians to push for real reform.

This article is reprinted with permission from Sada. It can be accessed online here.

Sarah Mersch is a freelance journalist based in Tunis.