The Calibri Font Is Threatening to Bring Down Pakistan’s Government

Wikipedia finds itself at center of the controversy because its entry on the font suggests a key document is fake

Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, being escorted by security as she arrives at an anti-corruption commission in Islamabad, July 5, 2017.
Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, being escorted by security as she arrives at an anti-corruption commission in Islamabad, July 5, 2017. AAMIR QURESHI/AFP

Wikipedia’s editors voted Tuesday to take the drastic step of locking the online encyclopedia’s article about the Calibri font. The reason: It is at the heart of a massive scandal that began in Panama and could end up toppling the Pakistani government.

The so-called “Calibri controversy” (or #FontGate as it is being dubbed online) began after the Panama Papers leak in 2016, when a trove of documents belonging to the Mossack Fonseca law firm revealed a complex web of offshore holdings by the world’s political and financial elite.

Among those caught in the net was a firm linked to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, prompting the country’s top court to form an investigative committee.

On Monday, Pakistan’s Joint Investigation Team (JTI) published its report into Maryam Nawaz’s holdings and made a startling revelation: Nawaz did disclose her ties to the firm, called Nielsen and Nescoll Ltd.

There was only one problem. According to local reports, the probe found that Nawaz’s 2006 declaration regarding the firm was typed in Calibri – a font that was only made publicly available in 2007, raising suspicions that the documents were forged.

As a result, local media and political wonks rushed to Wikipedia to discover the truth behind the claim – and some, possibly overly eager to defend their prime minister, even attempted to change the article’s content to claim that Calibri was available as early as 2004.

The font, at least according to Wikipedia, was indeed developed in 2004, but only went public with the launch of Microsoft Vista and Microsoft Office 2007, where the sans-serif typeface was to become the word processing giant’s default font.

Since Monday, when the report was released, over 60,000 people visited the relatively low-traffic article every day.

While Wikipedia is famous for its reluctance to impose restrictions on the collective editing process that makes it unique, locking articles to anonymous edits is a possibility. However, this is usually reserved for extremely controversial topics like Donald Trump, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the prophet Mohammed.

After the publication of the JIT report, Wikipedia administrators and editors began the process of nominating and then voting in favor of temporarily locking the article.

Saqib Quyyam, a prominent Wikipedia editor in Pakistan who first pushed the ban, told Haaretz that following the report's release there were numerous attempts to edit the page. "I was trying to remove the unverified information being added by anonymous people inside and outside of Pakistan. I nominated the page to be locked down due to the dispute," he explained.

“Please do not let people edit this font [page] as people are trying to save a corrupt political party on corruption charges by changing this entry,” one user wrote in defending the lock.

“It’s rare that a Wiki article gets directly embroiled in an international-level political scandal,” wrote another user who supported the lock. “The speed and efficiency with which this article was protected and its integrity preserved by the Admins is an example and proof that the Wiki model works,” they added.

Indeed, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has recently announced plans to expand the Wikipedia model to news production, with the new WikiTribune project expected to launch later this year.