‘Ghost writers’ most expensive, says ministry
ISLAMABAD: The information ministry apparently failed on Tuesday to convince the Supreme Court on why it was claiming privilege not to make public one list pertaining to expenditure of its secret fund which had not yet been declassified.
It conceded that ‘content writing’ by ‘ghost writers’ on certain subjects was the most expensive item for which handsome payments had to be made.
“When one fine morning incidents like May 2, 2011, in Abbottabad compound happen, the ministry lacks the ability to counter the negative fallout for which we have to request the best available writers in the market,” Mohammad Tahir Hassan, a director in the ministry, explained before a three-judge bench.
The bench, hearing a set of petitions regarding media accountability initiated by some television anchors, was discussing a request by the ministry to keep secret the list ‘B’ which contains 174 items and shows an expenditure of Rs86.8 million from its secret fund.
The court had already ordered to make public the list ‘A’ containing 282 items on which Rs177.9m had been spent on journalists etc.
Mr Hassan said the media challenge was increasing day by day and when expenditures from the head of the secret fund was made, “we consider it classified”, but now the ministry was also getting educated from these proceedings.
Advocate Raja Amir Abbas, representing the information ministry, said there were many journalists who did not want to come upfront because of the threat associated with it when they wrote against terrorism or Taliban. “They write under fictitious names.”
The ministry official said the war against terrorism had not ended and huge expenses had been incurred during the Swat operation against militants, especially when a large number of people were displaced.
However, the court was not convinced by the explanation and said operations like Swat were among the best campaigns which should not have been kept hidden from the nation.
The director said details of money spent on informants for providing information about the whereabouts of the mobile radio stations of Maulana Fazlullah, nicknamed “Mulla Radio”, could not be divulged.
Justice Jawwad S. Khwaja said the money paid to informants should not come under the publicity fund and no one was calling for revealing the names of the informants.
“We are not asking the ministry to disclose any information regarding payments made in respect of Fazlullah, but only what the ministry paid to the newspapers and television channels,” he said. “We will accept justification for sensitive information regarding defence and security.”
When the director tried to explain that a media coordination committee on defence planning, headed by the information secretary, decided about the payments on which the ministry was claiming privilege, the judge cited a news item in which an information secretary had expressed his ignorance about the existence of such a committee in the ministry.
Anchorperson Hamid Mir said an impression was being created as if journalists who did not take money from the secret fund were not working in the national interest.
Justice Khwaja wondered whether the “medal of patriotism” had to be given by the information secretary.
He said the nation should know whether a piece of writing was a spin, a paid slot or independent writing. “This is an opportunity and the court wants to avail this.”
The information ministry conceded that items in list B were not subjected to audit by the Auditor General (AGP), although the expenditures under the constitution were liable to be audited under the Auditor General’s (Functions, Powers and Terms and Conditions of Service) Ordinance, 2001.
The court ordered a senior functionary of the office of the AGP to appear on April 25 and inform it how long it would take to audit the items mentioned in the list. “Appropriate orders in respect of the items in list B will be passed on the next date of hearing,” it said.
The court also asked Mr Mir to submit a reply on an application filed by the ministry’s counsel that had accused him of using inappropriate language in talk shows in an attempt to influence the proceedings.