ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court of Pakistan is set to order the release of a secret list of journalists and media organisations bribed by the government in the name of national security.
The decision in this regard is expected to be taken next week.The long kept secret had never been revealed in the country’s 65 years of existence until on Thursday two Supreme Court judges, Justice Jawwad S Khawaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain, decided to interpret Article 19 of the Constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech and access to information.
The judges will take a final decision on April 17 when the government will resubmit a revised list of covert expenses, excluding only a few details for security reasons. The judges are hearing two identical petitions filed by two prominent journalists Hamid Mir and Absar Alam seeking an end to payment of taxpayers’ money to buy journalists and media organisations.
Advocate Raja Aamir, representing the government, first claimed blanket privilege to the whole list. He was asked by the judges to select a few items required to be kept secret for security reasons. The lawyer finally accepted that only 18 out of 200 instances of payments needed to be kept secret and the rest of the information could be made public. The information relates to the years 2011 and 2012 when the Pakistan People’s Party led by incumbent President Asif Ali Zardari was in power.
“It is apparent from the record that you [addressing the government lawyer] are in the habit of buying off journalists and columnists,” said Justice Jawwad S Khawaja further asking, “Is this was the way to spend (for instance) Rs1.4 million?” The judge observed that by making such secret payments to journalists, “you [the government] give an impression that the whole media is a commodity for sale.”
Justice Khilji Arif Hussain also could not hold back his remarks as he expressed the apprehension that by not disclosing this information the whole media was being maligned. “It looks like whoever appears on media is staging a drama… the whole of the media seems to have sold itself out.”
The four secret files presented to the Supreme Court were categorized into (1) Special Publicity Fund, (2) Secret Service Expenditure, (3) Institute of Regional Studies, and (4) Special Publicity Fund (September 7, 2012 to April 09, 2013, a period after the Supreme Court imposed a freeze on the use of secret funds). Justice Jawwad S Khawaja made it clear that out of four files only one file revealed an expense of Rs187 million.
During the hearing, the judge asked the government counsel to identify only genuine expenses which were done for justifiable reasons of national security. To this the official custodian of the secret record, Tahir Hassan, a director in the office of Secretary Information, selected a total of 18 items for claiming privilege out of a total 200 items. When the judge questioned the claim of privilege over a payment made on September 3, 2011, the government lawyer said this was done to counter Intervention of India in Balochistan. The judge pointed out that the total amount of selected items covered with claim of privilege comes to be Rs5 million only. “And the amounts given to widows of killed journalists are peanuts,” observed Justice Jawwad. He also observed that another Rs300 million were apparently given to a private TV channel.
Justice Khilji pointed out that there was no link between gifts and parties given to journalists and national security. “Secret funds were used even to air national songs on TV channels,” added Justice Khawaja.
The Supreme Court in its order directed the information ministry to resubmit the list of secret expenses on April 17 when the court will also examine if the claim of privilege over 18 other items was also genuine and the ministry will have to defend the same.