Appreciating the role of the media in a democracy, former President Pranab Mukherjee on Tuesday said the media, in the classical sense, is a watchdog of democracy, freedom and independence, but lamented that a large section of Indian media has become reticent to question those in power.
Being the fourth pillar of democracy, the media is “bestowed with extreme power, since it has the power to hold the other three pillars — the executive, legislature and the judiciary — accountable”, Mukherjee said.
Speaking at the launch of the book The Panama Papers, written by The Indian Express Executive Editor (Investigations) Ritu Sarin, Associate Editor Jay Mazoomdaar and Executive Editor (National Affairs) P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Mukherjee said that “at a time when a large section of the media in India appears to be reticent to ask questions to the powers that be, this book is a perfect reminder to shed that restraint”.
He said the media is “mediation between people and public servants” and “has the power to shape public opinion and to shape the power itself”.
Mukherjee said the cornerstone of any democracy is respect for law and order in that country, and “it is essential for economic activity to be in legal framework and national priority”.
Recounting his time as Union Finance Minister, before he was elected the President in 2012, he said he had initiated a series of studies to find out the exact quantum of unaccounted money in the system. Mukherjee said he has been told that the three reports he had ordered have been completed and submitted to the government, but the government is yet to release them.
“I had doubts about the exact quantum of unaccounted money” in the system, and “very fictitious figures were rolled out — sometimes not so high, sometimes astronomically high”, Mukherjee said. He said he then designated three agencies to study the problem and “exactly indicate the quantum of unaccounted money operating here and operating abroad”.
The agencies he named are the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, National Council of Applied Economic Research, and the National Institute of Financial Management.
“I have been told that these reports (have been) submitted but they have not yet been made public. Why it has not yet been made public… that the government should explain,” he said.
He said there was also a white paper with “substantial information” about how the black money operates in the system, but it did not include its quantum.
Stating that tax evasion and tax avoidance are as old as the civilisation, Mukherjee said measures to curb them can never be stopped and will be a continued exercise.
Mukherjee said he appreciates the “elaborate exercise made in this book, even in the process of the investigation, how it should be undertaken and from where to start, and in that process revealing the extreme complex nature of the operation”.
He said in doing the reports, published as a series in The Indian Express in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in 2016, Sarin, Mazoomdar and Iyer had lived up to the motto of The Indian Express of pursuing “journalism of courage”. The book and the investigation, he said, is “just not an experimental account of this global investigation (but) also forms a ready reckoner of how an investigation in such a massive story should be carried out”.
The Indian Express’s contributing editor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, who was the guest of honour at the event, called the book a “remarkable story of endurance and commitment to truth”. He said the book is about offshore tax finance and is “not a sideshow”, including only a “few prominent corrupt individuals, or people who want to avoid taxes”. Mehta said it has become a “global lubricant” and is “close to be the main show” as nearly 40 per cent of global companies are phantom companies used to move money around.