A legislator from the opposition Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz on Wednesday called for an end to the secrecy surrounding the budget of the intelligence agencies.
In a speech during the National Assembly debate on the federal budget for fiscal year 2012, PML-N legislator Ayaz Amir said: “This should be told (to the parliament) that how much of the defence budget goes to the intelligence agencies. We must raise this curtain of silence now.”
But the use of military funds is not the only area where secrecy is being maintained.
Even as the PML-N called for greater transparency in the military budget, reports have emerged of secrecy in the information ministry’s budget, especially surrounding the Special Publicity Fund, which has been used in the past to make covert payments to journalists and media houses.
The budget documents for the next financial year list this funding of Rs2.97 billion under ‘other expenditure’ at the ministry of information, but provide no other details. The year before, the ministry’s ‘other expenditure’ included funding for the Pakistan Institute of National Affairs, Institute of Regional Studies, news agencies such as the Associated Press of Pakistan, Secret Service Expenditure and the Special Publicity Fund.
The Special Publicity Fund was allocated Rs40 million in 2011, but the budget for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012 makes no mention of it. Over Rs230 million was allocated to the fund from 2000 to 2010.
According to a 2008 letter sent by the information ministry to the Federal Ombudsman, the Special Publicity Fund is “a secret fund which is discreetly utilised to support and supplement [the] ministry’s efforts for projection and wider dissemination of [the] Government’s policies and activities. It is utilised mainly to counter hostile and anti-Pakistan propaganda both within and outside the country, disclosure of which is not in the public interest and national integrity.”
The letter was sent in response to a complaint filed to the Federal Ombudsman by the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives’ programme manager Zahid Abdullah in 2008. He had submitted a request to the ministry under the Freedom of Information Act 2002, asking for details of how the fund was used, specifically advertisement plans, contracts with and details of the money paid to journalists, media houses, public relations firms, consultants and individuals.
The ministry turned down the request on the grounds that it is a secret fund and part of the Secret Service Expenditure account, even though Abdullah said the 2009 budget listed the Special Publicity Fund as part of other expenses. Abdullah filed a complaint with the Federal Ombudsman. He rejected the complaint after he received the above-quoted reply from the ministry.
Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan recently told the National Assembly that the fund’s expenses could not be disclosed because it was allocated under the Secret Service Expenditure object head. The NA was told that “the allocations were fully utilised in the public interest to serve the purposes for which these were made according to the prevailing rules”.
Noted columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee delved into the Special Publicity Fund in Dawn in 1997. He quoted government memos which listed payments made to the Frontier Post on now-President Asif Ali Zardari’s instructions, and to “Chaudhry Ghulam Hussain of the publications Facts and Siasi Log of Lahore”. Other payments were made to government officials and news agencies.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 9th, 2011.