Delivering its excellent verdict in the case brought by senior journalists challenging the maintenance of secret funds by ministries, including the information ministry, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court has laid down the difference between “audit” and “secrecy”, stating that every paisa of public money needed to go through an audit, although parliament could legislate — within constitutional boundaries — to prevent specific information from being disclosed. During the hearing of the case, it has already transpired that a sum of Rs37.5 billion had been maintained as secret service funds by 27 ministries.
The Supreme Court ruling in the matter is most welcome. The verdict must also be extended to funds allocated to intelligence agencies. Where “sensitive” matters are involved, the Court has already said that the legislature can rule on this. But there should be no escape from an audit of money that taxpayers contribute to the state. We hope this fundamental principle will be strictly adhered to. In a democracy, we need openness, accountability and transparency. No organisation should be able to keep taxpayers’ money that is not accounted for fully.
There is another aspect to the issue. While the petition placed before the Supreme Court essentially questioned the use of unaccounted-for funds by the information ministry to win over journalists through bribes, the fact is that two parties are involved in all such acts. While overseas trips, plots or other lucrative offers may have been made to media professionals, the fact also is that they were accepted. Such acceptance can, of course, only encourage bribery, which always involves two parties. Given this, we also call on the media to examine its own code of ethics. This has all but vanished over the years. But the nature of journalism is such that it demands responsibility and integrity. If these elements are missing, wrongdoing to serve specific purposes becomes more likely; indeed, possibly unavoidable. In such a scenario, it is not only the government which needs to subject its expenditures to audit, but the media organisations should also be subjected to some form of accountability. This, too, is something those who brought the case to Court need to look at.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2013.
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