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Secret funds: No more

Even when there were always only a few 'black sheep' among the journalists the entire community had to share the collective shame of receiving official dole-outs in exchange for their loyalty. The beneficiaries would venture out as foot soldiers of the rulers; often to protect and promote their unjust causes and at times willing to be used as handy tools to malign and defame its opponents. Hopefully, this dirty business of sale and purchase of media freedom will now end, with the Supreme Court outlawing the very concept of unauditable secret funds. Never ever was there any moral or ethical justification of secret funds in the budgets of a functional democracy. But it's the 18th Amendment under which the scope of Article 171 of the Constitution has been expanded to make it absolutely mandatory on the part of the Auditor General of Pakistan to ensure that every penny spent from the national exchequer is fully justified. That the Rule 37(5) of General Financial Rules (GFR), used by the government as cover to evade public accountability, has been declared by the apex court as illegal and unconstitutional, is indeed a huge push to cleansing the stables of corrupt practices in running the affairs of the state.

In its 20-page landmark judgement authored by Justice Jawwad S Khawaja the court has highlighted that accountability of those who hold high offices in government "represents the very foundation for the levy and legitimacy of taxes etc". In support of his argument he referred to the famous incident of Hazrat Umar (RA) being asked wherefrom he got the other piece to stitch his long shirt. And the all-powerful Caliph had to produce his son as the donor for the other piece. "It is through such levels of financial probity and public accountability that governments exercising in the name of people derive legitimacy". How much more an elected government could behave as unelected that there is hardly any explanation as to how Rs 3.57 billion secret funds allocated to 27 ministries in the fiscal year 2012-13 were spent. Of course a chunk of it must have been pocketed by the servile lot in the media.

Not that the Supreme Court has completely ruled out the need and imperative of earmarking secret funds for use by the government departments. But what it wants is that all such funds should be audited by the AGPR and as well the department "is allowed, in fact obliged, to exercise oversight over accounting procedures adopted by the government". Since the procedure prescribed for secret service funds under the GFR is grossly inadequate the court has asked the Accountant General of Pakistan to ask the government to substitute it with a more transparent one. He is expected to come up with an improved version of the relevant procedure in four months. The secret funds of the autonomous bodies even if they don't receive any government funding have also been brought under the watch of the AGPR. Conceding there may be exceptional circumstances "where certain audit would need to be kept outside the public purview," but in case such an exception is claimed then "it must be claimed through legislation and not in an arbitrary manner." Furthermore, such legislation would be subject to judicial review to ensure compliance with constitutional requirements. Some of the institutions that have claimed exemption from audit of their secret funds are expected to justify their stand before the same bench later next week. Indeed, by declaring audit of secret funds an inescapable legal and constitutional obligation in its judgement on the constitutional petitions filed by two Islamabad-based journalists the Supreme Court has created environment conducive to obtaining transparent governance that's so much needed. And more importantly, it would greatly help the journalistic community to regain its pristine shine lost over the years to successive governments' unhealthy practice of rearing the black sheep.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2013


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