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— File Photo

ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court was astonished to learn on Wednesday that the federal information ministry had distributed gifts worth millions from its secret funds among a few journalists during the year 2011-12.

“Were these gifts worth millions distributed among the journalists due to some national security issue?” asked a two-judge Supreme Court bench comprising Justice Jawwad S. Khwaja and Justice Khilji Arif Hussain.

The bench was hearing a set of petitions regarding media accountability initiated on the behest of some television anchors.

Claiming privilege, the information ministry submitted a report on secret funds before the court suggesting that the federal government had allocated Rs84.6 million under the head of Special Publicity Fund during 2011-12.

But the court directed the ministry to furnish a concise statement by Thursday along with relevant legal provisions on the basis of which the ministry had been claiming privilege on the report. It asked why the government was claiming confidentiality over allocated funds which had been collected from the people.

The government is reluctant to give details on the distribution of the money, even though article 19-A (freedom to information) has been inserted in the constitution through the 18th amendment, Justice Khwaja observed, adding that one of the objectives of the proceedings was to know where the public money was being spent.

Advocate Raja Amir Abbas, representing the information ministry, argued that the ministry had hired the services of columnists and writers outside the country to safeguard the national interest by utilising secret funds. Use of special publicity fund had been approved by the parliament, he explained.