The Supreme Court in its verdict on the writ petitions filed by two journalists to abolish “secret funds” of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting allegedly used to buy the loyalties of journalists remarked that they were not exempted from audit by the AGPR. It also maintained that Rule 37(5) of the General Financial Rules, which granted exemption from audit to the funds at the disposal of federal ministries, was illegal and unconstitutional. The court disposed off the petition after the government informed it that secret funds of all the ministries, except IB and ISI, had been frozen.

Reportedly, 27 federal ministries, including Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, had secret funds that amounted up to Rs 3.57 billion. This is, indeed, a legacy of the colonial era when such funds were used to buy the loyalties of individuals from different walks of life and the operator of these funds, which in our case is the Ministry’s Secretary, only had to certify that they were spent in public interest. Indeed, these funds have not only been used to buy loyalties, but also for personal gains by the secretaries and ministers without impunity.

Successive governments too have used secret funds and other tactics to buy the loyalties of journalists. Similarly, major media houses have been the beneficiaries in the form of allotment of costly plots at throw away prices, enhanced quantum of advertisements, special publicity campaigns and exemption from income tax on the income earned from government advertisements, notwithstanding the fact that they did not earnestly implement the wage board awards.

Our spy agencies have also benefitted from the services of journalists and many are still on their payrolls. Even more damning and disgraceful are the allegations levelled against the media men by former Director General ISI General Pasha in a statement before the Abbottabad Commission in which he said: “Journalists were also found involved in the vilification campaign against the ISI launched by the US and many of them were heavily bribed with money, women and alcohol. The media was practically bought up and nearly every one of our elite was purchasable.”

Ours is a society beset with total moral degradation, therefore, how can one expect journalists belonging to such a society to act like angels? The governments were able to buy their loyalties through unfair means because the recipients too were more than willing to come forward and offer their services.

If the purpose of the petitioners was to stop the government from this illegal practice and identify the black sheep in the media, one would have welcomed a direction by the Supreme Court for a thorough probe on this issue. That could have exposed before the public those faces, which were smeared with the blackness of their deeds and who were trying to speak from a higher moral pedestal to malign and denigrate the politicians, governments, organisations and individuals in places of authority.

The court was right in observing that the governments derive the legitimacy of their authority to govern through financial probity and accountability, especially at the highest level. The government is a trustee of public money and is obliged to spend it for the well being of the people and the state in an honest and transparent manner.

Indeed, the court’s verdict will immensely contribute to the evolution of a culture of transparency in spending public funds and nobody in his right mind can take an issue with its decision.

It is hoped that the PML-N government, which has a commitment to show zero tolerance for corruption and corrupt practices in the public domain, will take care of the principles of accountability enunciated by the Supreme Court in its verdict while firming up any future accountability mechanism and anti-corruption measures. There are already some positive indications that the PML-N government really means business in this area.

Anyway, the apex court also clarified that all government departments and autonomous bodies under the administrative control of the government were obliged to have their accounts audited by the AGPR and nobody was entitled to claim exemption from it.

It further observed that under Article 171 of the constitution, the AGPR was obliged to share its audit reports with the President, Governor, Parliament and the Provincial Assemblies as the case may be. This is a very significant observation, which confirms parliamentary oversight over government spending through deliberations on the audit report of the AGPR.

By giving this verdict, the judiciary has actually endorsed the contention of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). That the Supreme Court accounts also need to be presented before it like all other departments. This would have not only added to the prestige and stature of the apex court had it voluntarily opted to present its audit reports to PAC, but also sent the right message to all those who insist on exemptions from parliamentary oversight on their expenditures.

n    The writer is a freelance columnist.