Islamabad: Pakistan's Supreme Court is set to release a secret list of journalists and media organisations that purportedly received payments from the federal government in the name of national security, according to a media report. The apex court is expected to make a final decision in this regard on April 17, when the government will submit a revised list of "covert expenses" after excluding only a few details for security reasons, The News reported.
A two-judge bench is currently examining the issue of payments purportedly made from secret funds by the Information Ministry. The judges have decided to interpret Article 19 of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and access to information to arrive at a decision.
The apex court took up the issue after a petition was filed by two TV anchors. The petition sought an end to payments from taxpayers' money to journalists and media organisations.
During a hearing on Thursday, Raja Amir Abbas, the government's counsel, initially claimed the whole list of payments should be kept secret. However, the judges asked him to select only a few items that need to be kept secret for security reasons.
Abbas subsequently said only 18 of the 200 payments need 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 Peoples Party-led government was in power.
"It is apparent from the record that (the government is) in the habit of buying off journalists and columnists," said Justice Jawwad Khwaja, a member of the bench. He observed that by making such secret payments to journalists, the government is giving "an impression that the whole media is a commodity for sale".
Four secret files were presented to the Supreme Court on payments from a 'Special Publicity Fund', 'Secret Service Expenditure', 'Institute of Regional Studies' and 'Special Publicity Fund' for the period from September 2012 to April 2013. During the hearing, the government lawyer claimed one payment was made on September 3, 2011 to counter the "intervention of India in Balochistan" province.
The bench observed that Rs 300 million was apparently given to a private TV channel and that one file alone revealed expenses of Rs 187 million. The bench further said there was no link between national security and gifts and parties given to journalists.
During earlier hearings of the case, the government's counsel had revealed that the Information Ministry had used secret funds to hire columnists and writers outside Pakistan to "safeguard national interest". The use of the Special Publicity Fund had been approved by the parliament, he argued.