Pakistani politics

Fontgate: Could a Microsoft typeface bring down Nawaz Sharif in Pakistan?

The prime minister’s daughter Maryam Nawaz is accused of falsifying documents, submitted for the Panama Papers enquiry, using the Calibri font.

A political scandal that has gripped Pakistan for over a year and threatens to bring down Nawaz Sharif’s government has come to be pivoted on an unassuming typeface.

Calibri, Microsoft’s default font for its WordPad and PowerPoint programmes, became a buzzword in the country this week after a Joint Investigation Team found that the prime minister’s daughter Maryam Nawaz had falsified documents. Apparently, the documents submitted to the team dated to 2006, but were written in Calibri, a font that was not commercially available before January 31, 2007.

The report marks the latest twist in the long-running saga of corruption involving the Sharifs. Questions first arose over the financial affairs of the family after the Panama Papers, leaked in 2016, revealed that three of the prime minister’s children owned, through an offshore company, properties in London that were not declared in their assets. Opposition groups led by Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf have accused the Sharifs of failing to explain where they got the money to buy the assets from.

In April, Nawaz Sharif narrowly survived an inconclusive ruling in the case by the Supreme Court, which found there was not enough evidence of corruption to remove him from office. Instead it ordered further investigation to determine the money trail. The resulting probe now threatens to unseat him, and Calibri sits at the heart of it.

Fontgate, as it has come to be dubbed, quickly trended on Twitter, with users eager to revel in the misfortunes of a political dynasty that is looked upon unsympathetically even at the best of times.

Some saw it as Pakistan’s ‘covfefe’ moment:

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Frederik Obermaier declared Fontgate the favourite part of the investigation team’s report.

Naturally, plenty of memes were involved.

Puns, too.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, made an appearance as well.

Away from the jokes, debate raged about whether the Joint Investigation Team’s claims were correct. Many of the prime minister’s supporters pointed out that the font had been around from earlier than suggested. According to Microsoft’s website, an initial version of the font was available for download in 2005 and beta versions are likely to have been around even earlier. The contention over Calibri’s exact origins spiraled so out of control that on Wednesday, Wikipedia temporarily suspended public editing to its Calibri article until July 18 because of a slew of edit requests. The previous day, there had been over 30 revisions to the article.

Even Nawaz Sharif’s lawyer Zafarullah Khan was compelled to address the controversy in a press conference. “Please Google and see that [the font] was released in August 2004,” he said. Pakistan’s leading English newspaper Dawn took him up on the challenge and went further by contacting Lucas de Groot, the designer recognised as the font’s creator. A representative of his company, LucasFonts, admitted that Calibri had been designed in 2004 but said, “Early Windows betas are intended for programmers and technology freaks to see what works and what doesn’t. As the file size of such operating systems is huge, it would have been a serious effort to get.”

De Groot himself wrote separately to the newspaper, questioning “why would anyone use a completely unknown font for an official document in 2006?”

The implausibility of his working theory was the least of Khan’s worries, however. In an audacious attempt to defend his client, the lawyer drew parallels between Sharif and Jesus Chris, earning the ire of the civil society group Christian Action Committee, which demanded that criminal proceedings be launched against him for blasphemy unless he apologises.

As for the prime minister, he may need much more than just apologies for his exoneration.

Usman Ahmad is a British writer and photographer currently based in Pakistan.

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