ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court was informed on Wednesday that a total of 206 advertisements worth Rs1,076 million — Rs890m to print and Rs186m to electronic media — were issued by the federal government from Dec 1, 2017 to Feb 28, 2018.

Out of the 200 advertisements issued to the print media only nine contained pictures of political leaders and 191 were without any pictures, argued Additional Attorney General (AAG) Nayyar Rizvi before a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar hearing a suo motu case relating to the advertisements issued by the federal and provincial governments.

The chief justice clarified during the proceedings that the main purpose behind taking the suo motu notice was to prevent campaigns of self-projection or self-aggrandisement by the politicians who intended to contest the upcoming general election. The chief justice admitted that it was not the job of the court to intervene who decides and which organisation receives advertisements.

The chief justice mentioned that the Geo TV was receiving more advertisements because it favoured the government.

Chief justice says Geo TV is receiving more ads because it favours government

Information Secretary Ahmad Nawaz Sukhera, however, informed the court that the payment to the media was not made by the government but by advertisement agencies, adding that the Press Information Department (PID) processed the advertisements.

Justice Umar Ata Bandial observed that the real purpose behind the current exercise was to improve the system so that the public funds were utilised in a manner that no personal projection of the political leaders should be done through advertisements, adding that it was up to the government to issue advertisements in whichever manner to anyone.

“It is not our intention to humiliate anybody. We just want to make the public money get utilised cost effectively,” the judge observed.

President of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS) Hameed Haroon assured the bench that his society shared the court’s concerns that the taxpayers’ money should not be used in the electioneering process, adding that the society endorsed whatever the court thought ethical or suitable regarding issuance of advertisements but no restriction should be slapped on genuine advertisements.

APNS member Zia Shahid presented before the court six cheques worth Rs60m issued in relation to different advertisements but had not been cleared despite the passage of several months.

The court, however, made it clear that it was not planning to prohibit genuine advertisements.

Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan observed that advertisements with pictures showing launch of different development projects in the election year constituted pre-poll rigging.

Regarding Geo News anchorperson Hamid Mir’s petition for strengthening the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), the Supreme Court ordered Additional Attorney General Mohammad Waqar Rana to come up with recommendations or guidelines to make the regulator completely independent of government’s interference and that the policy directions issued by the government would be reasonable which should not curb the fundamental rights of the authority and the television channels.

The chief justice acknowledged that the federal government was avoiding the undertaking it extended earlier to implement the guidelines set out by the two-man media commission of retired Justice Nasir Aslam Zahid.

Regarding reports of Geo TV not being accessible throughout parts of the country, the information secretary assured the court that the information ministry had not issued any directives in this regard.

The chief justice observed that it was not the vested right of any channel that it should be placed in the advance channel list or at the bottom, adding that the court would issue the direction of advancing the channel in the top list if they established that it was their right.

Hamid Mir regretted that the channels were closed down in a minute but when it came to opening the same all kinds of excuses were offered to prolong the process.

The AAG agreed that Pemra’s independence could only be ensured if the procedure for appointment of its chairman and members was transparent and only eligible persons were appointed.

When the AAG explained that Pemra exercised its authority on the direction of the government, the chief justice regretted that this restriction seemed to be not only unreasonable but also absolute, harsh and cruel.

The court ordered the Geo TV’s representative to clear outstanding salaries and arrears of their workers by the end of this month. Beg or borrow, the arrears should be cleared, the chief justice observed, adding that a certificate along with an affidavit should be furnished before the court to inform it that the directions had been implemented. The court observed that it was the fundamental right of every employee to get salary at the end of the month.

Published in Dawn, April 5th, 2018