ISLAMABAD, Nov 9: The sacked chief of the Universal Service Fund (USF) in a petition filed with the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has alleged that the government removed him from the post after he refused to pay Rs128 million to an advertising agency for running a political campaign in the media.

Riaz Asher Siddiqui was removed from the post of the USF chief executive officer on November 4.

The government on November 6 appointed Dr Basit Riaz Sheikh, son of former additional director general Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Ahmed Riaz Sheikh, as the new USF chief.

The USF was established in 2005 by the federal government to expand IT and telecommunication services to the remote areas.

With the contribution of 1.5 per cent from the profit of IT and telecom operators, the USF has now Rs50 billion in its accounts.

Mr Siddiqui, in the petition filed through senior lawyer Raja Amir Abbas on Thursday, claimed that the publicity campaign was “not mandated under the USF rules.

According to clause 33-B of the USF rules, the fund can only be used “exclusively to provide access to telecommunication services to people in the un-served, under-served, rural and remote areas.”

He said after serving in leading IT and telecom companies for over 25 years, he was appointed as the USF chief for three years on December 28, 2011.

The petition said that while presiding over the 26th USF board meeting in December 2011, the then prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, issued directions for running a media campaign to highlight the USF achievements. Subsequently, a budget of Rs152 million was approved for the campaign.

The USF manager communications on March 5, 2012, sent a letter to the Press Information Department (PID) for selection of an advertising agency in accordance with the Public Procurement Regulatory Authority in order to ensure transparency in the process and provide an equal opportunity to all the agencies. The USF also published an advertisement seeking tenders in the reputed newspapers.

According to the petition, while the process for the selection of the advertising agencies was underway, the PID in March this year issued a letter according to which one agency was authorised to handle the day-to-day advertising business of USF till finalisation of the agency for running the media campaign.

The USF on March 19, through the PID, invited proposals to run the media campaign from various advertising agencies and received proposals from 14 agencies out of which eight were shortlisted on April 23.

According to the petition, USF in the next step, sought presentations from the ad agencies but on April 25, one agency sent an invoice amounting to Rs128 million for the media campaign it had already launched.

Since the media campaign was done without any approval from the USF board and its CEO, the matter was reported to the secretary IT.

However, the USF was informed that the prime minister had approved the campaign and the matter would be placed before the USF board of directors comprising federal minister IT, secretary and member IT ministry, chairman PTA and representatives of IT and cellular companies.

The board in its meeting on June 7 approved the release of Rs152 million to the ad agency, the petition added.

It alleged that the resistance of Mr Siddiqui annoyed the quarters concerned and they removed him from the post.

Amir Tariq Zaman Khan, federal secretary for IT, told Dawn that the service contract of Mr Siddiqui was terminated because of his unsatisfactory performance. “His termination has nothing to do with the media campaign.” He said: “The media campaign launched through the ad agency highlighted USF achievements and did not project the politicians.”

“As far as the appointment of ad agency is concerned, it was not my job as the PID was responsible for the selection,” he added.

A senior PID official on condition of anonymity told Dawn that the PID worked as a “post office” between government departments and the advertising agencies.

In this particular case, the advertisement was also released through PID in accordance with the set practice, he pointed out.

Wahaj Siraj, convener Internet Service Providers Association, when contacted, said the government deducted 1.5 per cent from the profit of IT and telecom companies for USF.

“The media campaign which ran through an advertising company seems to be of a political party campaign and we would take up the issue accordingly,” he added.

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) also initiated an inquiry into the matter on our application in which former CEO USF Asher Siddiqui admitted that the media campaign was unlawful, he claimed.

Dr Basit Riaz Sheikh, the newly-appointed CEO of the USF, told Dawn that Mr Siddiqui had opposed the “forensic audit” of the Fund which was planned by the IT ministry for ensuring transparency in its projects.”

He added: “Being an adviser to IT ministry, I was aware of this development. I guess this would be a reason for his termination,” he maintained.

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