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Publicity stunted

Every penny spent from the state exchequer on politicians’ projection should be duly accounted for

Publicity stunted
Supreme Court asked Punjab chief minister to reimburse to the national exchequer Rs5.5 million spent on media campaign.

By prohibiting the use of political personalities’ photographs in government advertisements, the Supreme Court has tried to safeguard public funds and put an end to the use of taxpayers’ money for the personal projection of political leaders.

In Pakistan, some leaders had been indulging in this corrupt practice since long, therefore, one would commend CJP Mian Saqib Nisar’s decision to stall this evil practice which was growing with the passage of time.

Under Article 218(3) of Pakistan’s Constitution, it is the duty of the Election Commission to conduct elections honestly, justly and fairly and to guard against all corrupt practices. Furthermore, Article 220 binds all executive authorities to assist the Commissioner and the Election Commission in the discharge of his or their functions. However, the authorities had not taken any action so far to forbid the use of political leaders’ photographs in advertisements released by the government agencies.

When viewed in a broader perspective, it is against the law in some developed countries to use state money for publicising the pet projects of political leaders (like the president, prime minister, chief minister, party chairman) or members of the Executive. The law designed to stall the use of taxpayers’ money to influence the voters’ electoral choice has a long history in the USA.

As early as 1913, the US Congress saw a potential danger in the Executive branch agencies spending taxpayers’ money to sway the American public to support the programmes of various administrations. Consequently, the Congress passed the Gillett Amendment (Section 3107 of Title V of the United States Code), which puts a bar on hiring the services of publicity experts other than those for which allocations have specifically been made in the budget. This amendment reads: “Appropriated funds may not be used to pay a publicity expert unless specifically appropriated for that purpose.”

The law was reinforced in 1919 with prohibition of the use of any appropriations for services, messages, or publications designed to influence a member of the Congress. Another law that year required the Executive agencies to utilise the US Government Printing Office so that the publications could be more closely monitored than in the past. Restrictions also prohibit Executive departments from mailing any material to the public without a specific request.

But, still the US federal government remains one of the largest advertisers and disseminators of information. A writer, somewhat critical of the US government’s production of news releases, newsletters, reports, brochures and the like, wrote that all this material would fill four Washington Monuments each year. However, most of the material dished out by the US state agencies caters to the needs of the citizens, in particular how to make use of various facilities provided by the state.

It is against the law in some developed countries to use state money for publicising the pet projects of political leaders (like president, prime minister, chief minister, party chairman) or members of the Executive.

The prohibition in the USA is actually designed to curb the tendency by any political party or a coalition of political parties, which happens to be in power, from gaining political mileage in elections, using State funds for publicity designed to influence the congressmen or the electorate.

However, in Pakistan, one finds state agencies releasing advertisements and sponsoring supplements in newspapers publicising the pet projects of political leaders quite often. The frequency of paid publicity material, both in the electronic and print media, earned for the leaders in the Punjab province the title of ‘most busy models of the country’.

As the election days approach, as per past perspective, the number of advertisements and newspaper supplements, designed to influence the public opinion, would increase in frequency. The fact remains that the misuse of authority and resources has no boundaries in Pakistan. Here, state funds are squandered without fear, right across the board, simply at the whims of persons in authority.

The incumbent administration, both at the Centre and in the provinces, is believed to have spent billions of rupees from the state exchequer on self-projection or to influence the outcome of the recent Senate elections and some by-elections earlier. If no checks were placed, it was feared that the present setup, whether at the Centre or in the provinces, might spend a couple of billions from the state funds on promotion and publicity of its leaders prior to the general elections next year. To check this tendency, the CJP issued order directing the Punjab chief minister to reimburse to the national exchequer Rs5.5 million which was spent on a media campaign run on television channels to highlight the Punjab government’s performance. In compliance with the Supreme Court’s order, the apex court was informed on March 12, 2018 that Shahbaz Sharif has paid the amount drawing it from the PML-N funds.

General Musharraf and Punjab Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi spent more than two billion rupees in 2007, during the last 30 days of the election campaign on their self-projection in the print and the electronic media, alleged Ahsan Iqbal during those days when he was PML-N Secretary Information. According to him, this amount was withdrawn from the World Bank loans for education and health sector reform programmes.

Justice (retired) Wajihuddin Ahmed, who contested the 2007 presidential election against General Musharraf, reportedly declared the state-sponsored election campaign of President Musharraf as illegal. “It is not fair by any means to allow one candidate to use state machinery and billions of rupees from taxpayers’ money while others have not been provided an opportunity even to address their electoral college,” i.e. members of both the houses of the
parliament and provincial assemblies.

Justice and fair play demand that elections rules and practices must provide a level-playing field to all candidates. No individual, irrespective of his power and position in the state hierarchy, should be allowed to spend from the state sources. He may spend as much money as he wants, but from his own pocket or from the funds of the political party that he represents.

However, at that time Musharraf loyalists vehemently defended the 2007 presidential election media campaign, contending “this is election year and the advertisements in the mass media are not meant for the personal publicity of General Musharraf and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi or anybody else. The government is merely trying to convey to the people what it has done for them during the last five years.” They declared the opposition’s claim that billions are being spent on the publicity of President Musharraf or Pervaiz Elahi as merely a propaganda stunt.

But, it goes without saying that state money is a sacred trust and that every penny from the state exchequer should be spent judiciously and that it should be duly accounted for. It is time that the authorities devise a code of ethics, covering publicity and projection of each and every aspect of running election campaigns, and get it approved from the Parliament and then ensure its strict enforcement.

Alauddin Masood

alauddin masood
The writer is a freelance columnist based at Islamabad. He can be reached at [email protected]

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