ISLAMABAD: When the Supreme Court begins hearing the contempt case against a major newspaper group on July 25, the interesting issue would not be what the newspaper group says in the SC but how deep the court digs into its Pandora’s Box. Why this box is a can of worms can and should be revealed because of the SC directive that all records of advertisements given by the governments to the media, both electronic and print, should be presented before the court. If this is done, as some reports say data has already started to come in, it would be the first time the real face of the media would become public. More importantly the nation would know how billions upon billions of taxpayers money has been used, or misused, by the governments, both at the Centre and in the provinces, and to whose benefit. There are many players and stakeholders who would be going through sleepless nights during these hearings which could turn into an actual trial of the media, not a media trial of others. The issues that could, and would, be raised include the role of the advertisers, meaning the governments in Islamabad and in the provinces, the middlemen or the advertising agencies who distribute these ads of billions of rupees and the recipients who publish or run these ads in newspapers and on TV. More importantly, because this is all public money, the questions that will have to be answered will include details of the criteria on which these billions of rupees ads were dished out; who would be held responsible for the decisions; what public interest these ads served and whether this money was used for political purposes. My media friends say the most sensitive information that is supposed to come out in the SC trial would be the role of the advertising agencies as government have used this money through these agencies for years and no one has ever focused on how this was done and who benefited. The governments, in the centre and the provinces, could easily try to wash off their hands by stating in the SC that these ad campaigns were made for information of the public about what their elected governments were doing and that it were the agencies which were actually responsible for selecting who gets what share of these lotteries. This is where the catch is. The criteria that the agencies will say they used is supposed to be based on the ratings and viewership of the TV channels and the circulation of the newspapers. This may on the face of it appear to be a fair procedure but what the SC needs to find out, and will, could be a lot dirty. The agencies will have to prove that they gave away this money to the most deserving but it would be a tough ask. If they shift the blame on the advertisers, it could become not just embarrassing but may be a violation of rules or laws as well, leading to legal consequences. Friends in the agencies say there are numerous cases when millions of rupees worth of ads were ordered to some TV channels with high ratings but others with similar or better ratings were ignored because they pursued policies which were critical of the government. So ultimately if it turns out that billions were given on the basis of which sections of the media supported, or opposed, the government, it would be alleged that a game of intense favoritism was played with public funds. Because billions of rupees are involved, this could become a ‘Panama trial of the media’ and it can only be assumed that except some groups or individuals in the media, a majority may not like this dirty linen to be washed in public. I have seen some lists and figures of how much each TV channel received in the last few years, or few months, as federal government campaigns but I would leave it to the SC to bring out these details before the public. But what I can reveal is that numerous instances will come to light, if proper questions are asked by the lawyers from those who were issuing the ads, those who were middlemen and those who received them, in which favoritism and misuse of power will be evident like daylight. Some campaigns, friends say, were issued at just two hours notice in which only the name and dates of the project that was being inaugurated were changed and channels were asked to insert these ads, sometimes at the cost of commercial advertisers who had already booked the space in advance. One important factor about government ads that would come out is that TV channels charge almost three to four times higher rate from the government advertisers as compared to normal ads which makes government ads immensely attractive and a high revenue earning prospect. So in many cases, millions were given away to favourite TV channels in just one day and the content of the ad was just the announcement that some big guy will cut the ribbon of some big project, at times for the 3rd or the 4th time because politics of that day needed that publicity. It will be argued that some of these campaigns were for public education and awareness, like using polio drops, combating mosquitoes, sending their kids to schools or pointing out suspicious activities of terrorists, etc, but how badly these funds were misused for political purposes will also get exposed. The lists of ads doled out is a mind-boggling reading. In some cases amounts in excess of Rs 200 or Rs 300 million were given to TV channels which do not figure in any list of top 5 or top 10 popular channels. Likewise some very popular but critical channels were seen at the bottom of these ad lists. If the SC judges go into these details and are able to find out what has been happening, they will then have to give directions to fix a universal criteria of how this public money should be used and distributed by the governments. We know that development funds have been used in the past by ruling parties by allocating a fixed amount, in millions, to MPs, but it is also known that opposition MPs also received these funds. In the case of the media as well, billions are involved and there is no check on how these billions are being used or have been used. That is why this first trial of the media beginning on July 25, could and should become the ‘Panama of the Idiot Box’. Published in Daily Times, July 23rd , 2017.