Since the expose cracked Axact's operations wide open three days ago, Pakistani investigators have raided their offices and confiscated servers. Politicians have called for a thorough investigation into the company.
According to the New York Times, Axact — which calls itself the world's leading IT company — is running at least 370 college, school and accreditation websites offering fake degrees globally. Axact has around 2,000 employees in Karachi. And its CEO is on his way to launching Pakistan's “biggest media network” BOL.
Axact has responded by attacking Walsh, the reporter behind the investigation; suing the New York Times for defamation; blaming the NYT for colluding with their Pakistani media competitors; and threatening a small independent blog in Pakistan with a big lawsuit. Axact has a long history of attempting to silence critics.
Axact posted a public response to the New York Times article on its website, pledging to take legal action on May 18:
The defamatory article published on 18th May, 2015, today’s events and their derogatory portrayal by the media proves that this is a massive conspiracy by the seths of the Pakistani media industry to defame BOL and Axact and derail the launch of BOL. Employees and their families were terrorized to disrupt the operations of Axact.
Axact's history of silencing questions
The blog Pak Tea House compiled some reactions on the NYT's Axact degree mill story. They were consequently served with a legal notice. Raza Rumi, blogger and co-founder of this blog, asserted that Pak Tea House is threatened for free speech:
This is against the principles of free speech. If the company is aggrieved it should present counter-facts and prove that NYT story is wrong. Instead it has chosen the path of bullying and serving legal notices with threats that they can proceed anywhere. Hope Pakistani and global online community will help us in fighting this brazen way of censorship in the cyberspace. Ideas, suggestions and help welcome.
There were reports that Axact was running a degree mill as early as 2007, but the company would crush questions with lofty lawsuits. Awab Alwi, a Global Voices member, Senior Ted fellow and Karachi-based blogger, reports:
Any attempt to criticize Axact has landed people in a shit hole of cease and desist notices and a few have escalated to legal lawsuits resulting in gag orders or content deletion.
Many, including people associated with Pakistan Software Houses Association (PASHA), questioned Axact's business model in the past, but were threatened with lawsuits. Umar Saif, a leading technologist in Pakistan, shared this lawsuit he received two years ago from Axact's lawyers:
In 2008, the independent blogging site Karachi Metro was also threatened with a lawsuit after this post went up on their site: Unveiling operations of a local software house. The site refused to take the post down, but according to blogger Awab Alvi, Axact ultimately petitioned Google to have it removed from its search results.
In 2009, a local news channel in Detroit, United States, ran a report on a degree scam in Karachi, Pakistan that had swindled more than 30,000 people and was facing a lawsuit.The report almost exposed Axact, according to the New York Times.
Pakistan's fake degree problem
While it is common knowledge in Pakistan that academic credentials can be bought and sold through third-parties that have no affiliation with universities, no company was ever specifically held responsible.
Numerous politicians and celebrities have been found in possession of fake MBA or PhD degrees. In 2006, it was discovered that now formerJunior Religious Affairs Minister Amir Liaqat submitted a fake degree issued by the Trinity College and University of Spain while filing his nomination forms for elections. Although the diploma was revealed to be false, the source of the document was never exposed. Liaquat's college isn't in the list of Axact-linked sites that the NYT produced, but its website is suspicious.
In 2010, amid the forced resignations of members of parliament stemming from their use of fake degrees, then-Chief Minister of Balochistan Nawab Aslam Raisani infamously told media that “a degree is a degree, authentic or fake.” The statement was captured on video and swiftly went viral.
The Axact investigation
Much of the information reported by the New York Times came from former Axact employees who spoke with Walsh on the condition of anonymity. The former employees said that in one instance, the company made $600,000 from only 22 customers. Another former employee, Kasim Osmani, confirmed in a blogpost on Pak Tea House that Axact is involved in selling fake degrees:
Axact appears to be ‘world’s leading IT company’ as its slogan reads; however, most of its office floors are occupied with agents who operate in Middle East region luring Arab/international people with certified US degrees solely on basis of their professional experience. These degrees range from Bachelors, Masters, and PhD (Axact takes pains to prepare thesis for you as well, if you don’t have enough time or skills!).
Pakistan's next big media network
Axact is also behind the self-proclaimed ” biggest media group” in Pakistan BOL network, which hasn't even gone on air yet. The network has poached many star anchors and journalists over the last two years and has shaken the local media industry by paying salaries to its workers on time and providing “Silicon Valley-style” benefits.
The Federal Investigation Agency of Pakistan is looking into the degree scandal and has sealed two offices of Axact in Rawalpindi and Karachi. Local media reported that at least 32 employees including executives were also arrested without warrant.
Axact's attack on Declan Walsh
In their public response to the New York Times, Axact went on to attack the reporter behind the investigation, who was expelled from Pakistan in 2013 after he reported about abuses committed by security officers in Balochistan:
The story is authored by some reporter Declan Walsh of NYT who was expelled from Pakistan as Persona non-grata by Pakistan Interior Ministry allegedly due to his involvement in damaging Pakistan’s national interests. .. Several other organizations have also written about him as well as failure of NYT to deliver credible news (click here to read more). This reporter has worked and devised a one-sided story without taking any input from the company.
But Declan Walsh says that's untrue:
— Declan Walsh (@declanwalsh) May 19, 2015
Khabaristan Times, a satirical newspaper, decided to take Axact's absurd accusations to the next level:
Walsh does not live in Pakistan any more. He was sent away for trying to prove that extremists not RAW [India's spy agency] was behind different attacks. We at Axact believe that RAW is indeed behind destabilisation in Pakistan so any person bearing semblance in name or face to Walsh has to be deemed ‘some reporter’.
Malik Siraj Akbar, an exiled Pakistani journalist and South Asian analyst, writes that Axact is not engaging in appropriate professional behavior by making personal attacks on a reporter instead of focusing on the contents of the NYT report:
An independent news media is essential for Pakistan's democracy but it is also more important to be transparent about the sources of funding for news organizations. In the first place, journalists should not work for a media organization that makes money through illegal means. Shady money is very likely to cause disruption and police raids on media organizations. That's the worst thing any journalist would want to encounter while working on a story.