FAKE DIPLOMAS, REAL CASH [FDRC] – An Over view

The article was submitted for The  New York Times in May 2015 but was not published.

Fake-degrees

If being in the news is an art, Pakistan deserves an Oscar. Earlier this month Pakistan had been making headlines for its possible joining of a Saudi led coalition against Yemen. Then came Seymour Hersh with his ten thousand words treatise about OBL’s alleged encounter in Abbottabad. And now Declan Walsh’s jaw dropping story in The New York Times (NYT) had literally broke the internet. A Pakistani IT company called Axact was allegedly peddling fake diplomas and earning real cash in millions.Hence the acronym Fake Diplomas, Real Cash [FDRC].

Writer of the FDRC story, Declan Walsh, the London based bureau chief for NYT is not a popular man in Pakistan. His investigative journalism has often been seen as to spew slander. Walsh worked in Pakistan for nine years before his expulsion from the country. In May 2013, on account of his involvement in undesirable activities he was declared “persona non grata”.  Thus when even a very well researched story like [FDRC] is filed by someone like him, Pakistanis suspiciously try to see some eye “walsh-ing”.

The New York Times which published [FDRC] story is an institution with 164 years old history in journalism. Since 2010 it has a distribution agreement with a local media group that publish Express Tribune. In a country where English is considered to be domain of well-educated people, large numbers of influential Pakistanis are regular readers of NYT through Express Tribune. More importantly, this group operates three T.V channels including highly popular Express News in Urdu. Quite often Express Tribune has tried to pitch stories that were not well received with local authorities and resulted in occasional censorship. In March 2014, The Express Tribune, carried out a censorship on a story “What Pakistan knew about bin Laden,”. Instead of seeing a lengthy report readers were greeted with an enormous section of white space on the paper’s front page.

According to the official website, Axact was founded during the dot-com boom in 1997 and started from a one room office. Today, it has global presence in six continents, 120 countries, 1300 cities with 25000 plus employees. It claims to have 2 billion users worldwide and a strong customer base of 40 million. Company claims to be the largest exporter of IT services contributing 65 % of country’s IT exports. As per official website 7 out of its total 10 business units are world number 1 . The company offers more than 23 world class products including ERP, HRM,media management system, health care, defense and security etc. Its social initiatives include educating 10 million Pakistanis children by 2019 and making health affordable to all Pakistanis. Company’s head quarter is an impressive high rising building in Karachi with 2000 plus employees.

Allegations made by Daniel Walsh in FDRC story are cold and clear. It claims that Axact is involved in running an online empire of 370+ fake institutions. This rent a degree business was offering high school diplomas, bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees in diverse fields from aeronautical engineering to medical sciences.

Apart from the allegations made in FDRC scam, there is a Mystery surrounding Axact. According to an online source who live in front of Axact Head Office in Karachi “This is a common question in Karachi that what does Axact do exactly? The unusual high salaries arouse curiosity. Even the hairdressers earn three times they earn in a top salon in Karachi”. A company whose moto boasts “World’s leading IT Company” is not seen in any trade shows. No one in the software industry know much about them. Being a top ERP solutions provider how come they are not on the SAP List of Competitors which keeps a very comprehensive list? How come The Economist’s Intelligence Unit does not classify them as a bona fide software house?

So far the reaction from the company on FDRC has been absurd. In an official press release, no concrete explanation was offered. On the contrary, blame was shifted conveniently on the competitors, with claims that allegations were part of a shrouded conspiracy theory, rooted in fear of company’s highly acclaimed forth coming TV Channel. No intentions were indicated of taking NYT to the court for defamation. More Bizarre attempt was to unleash the wrath on relatively smaller platforms. A relatively unknown blogging platform Pak Tea House that published a collection of tweets about FDRC was served a scaring legal notification setting vibes across the blogging fraternity.

In Pakistan, had the FDRC been only about a software company, this would not have garnered much attention. The reason behind swelling up of the issue in record time is Axact‘s highly acclaimed subsidiary, BOL TV which after numerous delay is set to launch in August (now on first Ramadan, almost 19 June 2015).  In a country with already more than 90 TV how a new comer can matter. Reason is simple. Money. Bol TV‘s  shopping spree of top notch journos, whooping pay packages, corporate facilities at par with silicon valley, extreme advertising with 20000+ vehicles painted in official colors and state of the art studios were enough to cause panic among the competitors. Result? Copyright issues, legal notices, court hearings and media wars breaking a plethora of corporate conspiracies.

This is beyond any doubt that a significant portion if not all of Pakistani corporate media is messed up. Maligning the state institutions, allowing coverage to rouge elements, foreign funding, dubious connections, yellow journalism, sensationalism, rate-ing race, political motives and slanted views are norm rather than exception. Lack of proper monitoring mechanisms, meaningful policies, appropriate regulations and absence of a national electronic media code of conduct allows Pakistani media to swim in murky waters.

Corruption is rampant in Pakistan and all the statistics verify this.In March this year, Pakistan was ranked 126 out of 175 on the Corruption Perceptions Index  (CPI) by the Transparency International. With corruption being wide spread there is an un-ending stream of scams and scandals. Social, Print and Electronic Media is jam-packed with tortuous tales of financial embezzlement, tax evasion, money laundering and white collar crimes one after another. List of most recent items on the menu include the dubious import of wheat from Ukraine and involvement of a Super Model in money laundering , caught red handed on the airport with half a million dollars. One of the country’s most popular T.V show is Sar-e-Aam (In-Open) which exposes corruption at the grass root level including witch doctors, fake media outlets, food adultery and notably an inexhaustible supply of counterfeit products. Major financial scams in the past involved forex, cricket players, airline, railways, and power plants etc. However in terms of its sheer scale and global impact (FDRC) story is huge. In order to get a better insight, two examples from Pakistan’s recent past can be helpful.

In 1972, a prolific Pakistani Banker Agha Hasan Abedi laid the foundation of The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) with head offices in Karachi and London. Within a decade it spread its operations in 78 countries, with over 400 branches and had approx 30,000 employees. Its assets exceeded US$20 billion, making it the 7th largest private bank in the world. The remarkable journey of BCCI was halted in 1980s when allegedly bank was involved in massive money laundering. By July 1991 bank collapsed, never to emerge again. If the allegations in  FDRC story go unchallenged, history could repeat itself for another Karachi based Pakistani institution.

Fast Forward to 2002. Higher education system in Pakistan was in miserable state. Dr Atta ur Rahman, a renounded scientist was appointed as chairman of Higher Education Commission (HEC).Dr Atta with more than 970 publications and 37 patents to his credit was held in high respect at home and abroad. Under his leadership hundreds of students were sent abroad on scholarships, more research papers produced and most importantly checks were put in place for private and public universities through their ranking and accreditation in order to curb ghost institutes and bogus degrees. A remarkable achievement of HEC was the verification of degrees held by member of parliaments which till today had resulted in eviction of many from the House. In 2009, prestigious Nature magazine showered much praise on the achievements of Pakistan’s HEC. Subsequently with arrival of new leaderships glory of HEC proved to be short lived and situation changed from bad to worse. Compromises were made and large number of unregulated degree awarding institutions mushroomed. Just like Agha Hassan Abedi’s brilliant brainchild BCCI went astray, Dr Atta’s HEC in Pakistan is presently rediscovering itself. The current allegations on country’s largest IT company, for peddling fake online diplomas and degrees is testimony to HEC’s neglect of online universities operating from within the country.

In FDRC story, issue of allegedly fake diplomas being dispensed through the medium of internet brings another important aspect to the fore front- legislation. On 16 Apr 2015, National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology and Telecommunication approved the ‘The Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2015’. From the first day draft bill had under gone severe criticism mainly because of various provisions that restrict freedom of information and speech. Rights groups like Reporters without Borders (RSF) and Freedom Network (FN) http://www.dawn.com/news/1177947 called for a complete overhaul of the Bill.

In the Electronic Crime Bill 2015 , major issues like cyber terrorism, spamming, stalking and spoofing etc have been satisfactorily addressed. With reference to fake diplomas and degrees, applicable sections can be Section 11 – Electronic Forgery, Section 12-Electronic Fraud and Section 23 – Spoofing. In case of electronic frauds (Sec 12) it may result in imprisonment for up to two years or fine up to ten million rupees or both. In the wake of  FDRC, matter of fake diplomas, facilitated through cyber space needs to be explicitly addressed in the bill.

The Rabbit Hole goes Deeper…..

So in FDRC scam what matters more from the American perspective? United States needs to have an in house retrospection . How the calls from 100+ countries to Toll free numbers registered in US went unnoticed? Moreover the scope of FDRC menace is possibly all over South Asia. Allegedly there have been reports of consultant rackets which “help” Indian students to get into US.

P.S: While planning for higher studies in foreign countries one must consult UN sponsored Higher education database www.whed.net  which host data of 18,000+ universities across the globe.

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