The Indian Express HSBC #SwissLeaks list, More sensationalism less substance?

After generating a lot of hype on Social Media, about their “big break”, The Indian Express published a series of reports on HSBC’s clients, the details of their accounts in Switzerland and the balance in the accounts as of 2006-07. The list was sourced from French journalists who in turn got it from their sources in the French Government. The list was also given to a consortium of over 140 journalists from 45 countries. The date of publishing of this list i.e. 9th February, was decided by all the members of the consortium, well in advance. This should put to rest conspiracy theories that the list is out only after Delhi Elections.

The Indian Express published only the Indian names, and also provided a list of top 100 account holders, calling it the “#SwissLeaks List”. On the page of the list itself there is no mention of black money or illegitimate accounts, but many on social media construed it to be a “Black Money list”

The Indian Express clarified this in a separate post, where it said that it is “Unlikely” that all these accounts have black money and haven’t been disclosed to the Indian tax Authorities. It further said that the list “may include legitimate account-holders who had taken permission and have declared the accounts, as well as holders of undeclared accounts who currently have to pay taxes and penalty, even face prosecution

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And there lies the problem. Does any media agency have the right to publish names of legitimate account holders with legitimate “white” money, under a #SwissLeaks list, and thereby fuelling theories in the minds of a lay reader that such accounts are of “black money”? This question should go to all agencies around the world, not only Indian Express. Saikat Datta, a journalist himself raised this issue:

Again, the question arises, is Media competent to judge whether an account is related to tax fraud or not? We would have liked Indian Express to clearly mention on each page that this list may or may not have “black money” account holders, instead of a small disclaimer in another page. To their credit, they did ask for comments from some of the account holders, and while some have denied having HSBC accounts, some have taken a nuanced stand that they don’t have “illegitimate accounts”.

Some people on the list like Naresh Goyal, founder chairman of Jet Airways, and former Navy Chief Admiral Nanda, have made it clear that they have been NRIs for a long time and have always declared such accounts to the Indian Income tax department. Whether such people have been unfairly targeted or not, will be revealed only after the Government conducts its enquiry. Hence, there needs to be a clear distinction between legitimate accounts, illegitimate accounts (could be benaami accounts), accounts with “white” money and accounts with “black money”. 

While the actual list contains many of the usual suspects like the Ambani family, many were surprised by the absence of anybody from the Gandhi family. Some even went on to say they wont believe any list which doesn’t have Gandhis’ names in it. 

A more plausible explanation was given by @ParmarChandrika , a twitter user:

It is also possible that much of the money was long shifted to other financial centres such as Dubai and Singapore and tax havens such as St Kitts and Cayman Islands.  

The real news though will break soon, when the Government will reveal names of 60 people against whom prosecution has been initiated in the Black Money case. These are the cases where the Government has actually established that tax evasion has occurred, in contrast to the Indian Express list, which just summarily gives names of all people holding HSBC accounts in Switzerland. 

Consequently, what the Indian Express #SwissLeaks list will achieve is this:

1. Reveal names and details of legal account holders with legal money, thereby invading their privacy

2. Clubbing such legal names with people who have “black” money in such accounts, thereby defaming such legal account holders

3. Giving fodder to conspiracy theorists: When the Government, after investigation, will reveal the names against whom cases of Tax fraud have been established, there will be a section of people who will compare the Government’s list with the Indian Express list and start claiming that the people against whom the Government hasn’t acted have paid off the Government and that the Government is “XYZ agent”.

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