The Supreme Court (SC), as it resumed hearing a suo motu case on hefty advertisement expenditure by provincial governments using taxpayers' money, was told on Tuesday that newspapers are brought to heel by means of financial arm-twisting.
In an earlier hearing of the case, a three-judge SC bench ordered Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to reimburse the national exchequer Rs5.5 million for a Punjab government ad in a newspaper carrying his photograph.
The SC, taking exception to the extravagant sums of money doled out on advertisements by provincial governments annually, observed that taxpayers' money was being used for self-promotion of political parties despite persistent problems plaguing citizens, such as water shortages in state-run schools and lack of medicines in public hospitals.
The CJP had wondered earlier whether such expenditures are equivalent to pre-poll rigging, and had said that provincial governments should promote their work at their own expense.
Another issue regarding the distribution and placement of advertisements was brought to light in court today when a private newspaper owner who had been in the profession of journalism for 50 years told the bench that Pakistan International Airlines stopped giving them ads when the publication had printed a story about a plane being stolen three years ago.
The owner also said that advertisements placed in publications by governments should not benefit political parties, adding that he was once pressured by a person against publishing a news report with the threat that the newspaper would not receive ads from them again.
The journalist called for the court to set up a fact-finding committee or draft a law or ombudsperson for the purpose of investigating such incidents. "There should be a clear system in place," the newspaper owner said.
Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar questioned whether provincial governments should issue guidelines regarding the placement of advertisements.
"Yesterday, we found out that the Indian Supreme Court issues guidelines on this matter," the CJP said.
He observed that there were two separate issues being discussed ─ that of provincial governments spending taxpayers' money on advertisements, and that of discriminatory advertisement expenditure and placement.
"Government ads should be given without discrimination," the CJP asserted, saying that this issue would be scrutinised separately. "We don't differentiate between Jang, The News or Nawa-i-Waqt," the CJP said, adding that they would need to make a single, clear policy on placement of ads.
A lawyer representing the All-Pakistan Newspapers Society also said that no provincial government should run an ad campaign using funds from the national kitty.
'KP govt spent Rs240m on ads in last three months'
On Monday, a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government official told the court that the provincial government had spent Rs1.63 billion on media campaigns during its five-year tenure ending this year.
Today, the KP information secretary submitted the government's record of ad expenditures over the last three months in court.
From Dec 1 to Feb 28, the KP government spent Rs240m on its own advertisements, the secretary told the court, adding that in these three months, not a single ad contained a photograph of KP Chief Minister Pervez Khattak or PTI chief Imran Khan.
It is pertinent to note that Rs240m is 14.7pc of the KP government's total ad expenditure over the last five years.
"Under what laws are MNAs and MPAs being given funds in the run-up to the election?" the CJP asked. "Prior to the election, money is openly distributed under the guise of development funds," he pointed out, saying that the verdict in the case may be issued today.
Justice Umar Ata Bandial pointed out that the funds used for advertisements were taken from the national kitty, and the CJP said the court would order the provincial government to return such funds to the exchequer.