Cover Image: A Sindh Excise, Taxation and Narcotics Control Department advertisement that appeared in the Sindhi newspaper Daily Kawish on 28 July 2017 encourages citizens to use the department’s website to calculate their taxes.
Islamabad — The Sindh provincial government made payments of over Rs. 6 billion in 2017-18 for the apparent commissioning, publishing, and broadcast of advertisements, according to details shared by the Sindh Information & Archives Department.
The details also show that the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)-led Sindh government continued to do business with advertisement agencies whose names had previously come up in corruption cases filed by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) against PPP leaders and Sindh information department officials.
The former Sindh information minister Sharjeel Memon, a PPP politician, is currently under arrest and was charged earlier in 2018 with abuse of power in awarding government advertisements at exorbitant rates between 2013 and 2015.
The names of some of the advertising agencies Mr. Memon is accused of benefitting — Evernew, Adarts, X-Nine — also appear in the payment details shared by the Sindh Information department for fiscal year 2017-18. However, the mere fact of these agencies getting paid by the provincial government does not indicate any wrongdoing.
The information department published the advertisement spending details on its website voluntarily in a bid to promote access to information under the Sindh Transparency and Right to Information Act 2016. The records show payments made to advertising agencies and newspapers through the information department in the period from July 2017 to June 2018.
According to the department, the Sindh government made payments to eight advertising agencies in 2017-18.
Midas (Pvt.) Ltd. was paid nearly Rs. 2.2 billion, followed by Evernew Concepts (Pvt.) Ltd. with around Rs. 1.5 billion received as payments.
Midas is also involved in a NAB corruption case. Hasan Sheikh, the Chief Executive Officer of the Midas advertising agency, and Yousuf Raza Gilani, the PPP politician and former Pakistani Prime Minister, are among several individuals accused of executing an illegal advertising contract that went to Midas and allegedly cost the national exchequer Rs. 129 million, according to a Dawn news report.
It is uncertain whether the Sindh payments to advertising agencies were only for commissioning advertisements or not. Typically advertisement agencies also offer services for ad placements in the broadcast media.
The Sindh information department did not respond to Media for Transparency’s request for comment despite repeated attempts. Questions were also shared in writing with the department’s Director Advertisements, who asked to see the questions initially but denied comment later.
The Rs. 6 billion paid out by the provincial government for advertisements is more than the entire development budget allocated for college education in Sindh in the same year. Budget documents for 2017-18 show that even the annual development expenditures for 35 Sindh departments were below the sum of ad-related payments. The new Sindh government is considering a new advertisement policy to make the allocation of ads more fair and transparent, according to a news report.
The payments made to the eight ad agencies amounted for just over 90% of the total ad-related payments made by the provincial government during the fiscal year 2017-18. The remainder — almost 8.5% or Rs. 525 million — was paid to newspapers that printed the government ads, the records show.
Out of 203 newspapers that were paid for advertisements, only six received payments over Rs. 10 million.
Daily Jang, one of the oldest and largest Urdu newspapers, was paid Rs. 72 million in 2017-18. Kawish, a renowned Sindhi daily, was second on the list of payments with Rs. 38 million.
However, the data regarding payments made to the newspapers uploaded by the information department to its website is missing some records. The department did not provide the missing records when Media for Transparency requested for them.
It is also not clear how many of the print advertisements for which payments were made were related to vacancies, tenders, and public notices as compared with advertisements promoting the government’s achievements. In the past, however, the PPP-led Sindh government has faced criticism for the content of its public service advertisements.
In January 2018, for example, the Sindh High Court ordered Sindh government officials to furnish details of public awareness advertisements that featured pictures of PPP leaders. The court was hearing a petition by two citizens, who had argued that the government was promoting political interests with public money by featuring PPP leaders in government-sponsored print advertisements.