ISLAMABAD: A private organisation called the Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) would approach the Supreme Court of Pakistan on Tuesday, claiming that it has documentary evidence about the secret funds of the Information Ministry used under a different head, called the “Special Publicity Fund”.
Zahid Abdullah, a top executive of the CPDI, told ‘The News’ on Monday that he had a letter in which the Ministry of Information had admitted in 2008 that the Special Publicity Fund was also a secret fund. He recalled that in 2008 the SPF had over Rs200 million.
“This letter makes a very interesting reading. Justifying the reason for the existence of this fund, the letter says this fund is to counter the ‘hostile propaganda’ and ‘for wider dissemination of government’s policies and activities,” Abdullah said, adding that terming the Special Publicity Fund as secret, the letter says: “The account will not be subject to scrutiny by even the audit authority”.
He said that the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had been operating secret funds and Centre for Peace and Development Initiatives (CPDI) would submit the documentary evidence in this regard to the Supreme Court on Oct 9 along with the application to be added as a party in the constitutional petition of Hamid Mir and Absar Alam vs. Federation of Pakistan and others.
He disclosed that on August 29, 2008, CPDI submitted an information request to Ministry of Information and Broadcasting under Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002, asking; a) access to certified copies of the strategy/advertisement plans to spend funds under Special Publicity Fund budget head from October 01, 2002 to March 20, 2008; b) access to certified information about the names and addresses of media houses/PR firms/consultants/journalists/individuals that received funds under Special Publicity Fund from October 01, 2002 to March 20, 2008; and c) access to certified copies of the contracts under which Ministry of Information and Broadcasting released funds to media houses/PR firms/consultants/journalists/individuals from Special Publicity Fund from October 01, 2002 to March 20, 2008.
On Sept 25, 2008 the ministry denied the information saying: “The whole operation of Special Publicity Fund falls under the category of classified information. It is, therefore, exempted under Section 8, 14, 17 of Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002.”
However, CPDI had already filed a complaint with Federal Ombudsman as the ministry had failed to respond to its request within 21 days. On Sept 27, 2008, the Ombudsman wrote to CPDI saying that they were dealing with the complaint.
On Sept 29, 2008, the Ombudsman wrote to the ministry calling upon it to meet the allegations laid out in the complaint. In a letter to Federal Ombudsman dated October 24, 2008, the ministry took the plea before the Wafaqi Mohtasib that the Special Publicity Fund was an allocation made under the Head of the Account “A 03914- Secret Services Expenditure” similar to Secret Fund provided to any organisation of the government.
On Nov 25, 2008, the CPDI sent a rejoinder to the Ombudsman stating that Special Publicity Fund was put in ‘Others’ category in the budget for 2008-9. Furthermore, there were some other allocations in ‘Others’ category such as ‘Pakistan Institute of National Affairs’, ‘Internews’, ‘Institute of Regional Studies’ and ‘News Network International’ were also put in this ‘Others’ category.
The CPDI maintained that it saw no reason that the information pertaining to the utilisation of ‘Special Publicity Fund’ was termed classified. In its response on Dec 17, 2008, the ministry maintained that the fund was declared by the Finance Division as secret through its letter dated April 29, 1976.
The ministry, according to Abdullah, also stated that the secretary had declared the information sought by the complainant as secret in exercise of the powers given to him in terms of Chapter 4 of the booklet titled ‘Security of Classified Matter in Government Departments’ issued by the Cabinet Division.
On October 27, 2010, deciding on this information request, Federal Ombudsman wrote: “It is not the function of this office to call for and scrutinise the expenditure met from allocations made under the head ‘Special Publicity Fund’ to see whether it was really made for the stated objectives and that the disclosure of which could be against the national interest”.
The CPDI filed representation to the President of Pakistan against this decision on Nov 29, 2010. It will be exactly three years next month and the president has not decided on this representation. In the office of the President, Abdullah said, it took eternity to decide these representations.
“That is why filing representation to the President is the last refuge of government departments. CPDI deplores the fact that not only the present government has failed to repeal the ineffective Freedom of Information Ordinance 2002 but has continued with toothless Federal Ombudsman as an appellant body in the proposed law on freedom of information. Even in the present case about secret funds, the experience shows that Federal Ombudsman deals with the complaints with the narrow prism of maladministration and not as a denial of fundamental rights of citizen which it is entrusted with to protect. CPDI demands the government to establish an independent and autonomous information commission in the new law on freedom of information as is the case in other regional countries like India, Bangladesh and Nepal.”