Bribing for positive media coverage

Dr Ousman Gajigo. Picture source: Kerr Fatou.

The recent decision by Adama Barrow’s government to pay media companies with huge sums of money so that they can cover government activities in a certain way is disturbing on so many levels. It is a blatant act of corruption and misuse of public forms. It is also highly disappointing that the complicit media houses accepted the money, and in the process betrayed public trust and damaged their credibility.

Good work is its own advertisement just as proper behavior is its own reward. A government that is secure in its role of delivering services for the nation’s advancement does not need to pay for positive coverage. It is the role and responsibility of media houses to cover newsworthy events.

There is no activity that is more newsworthy than the government implementing development activities or projects that enhance people’s welfare. The news stories on such events practically write themselves. Indeed, the government may not even have to put any effort into publicizing them. The actual beneficiaries of such projects would be loudly proclaiming the benefits they are receiving, which should be the greatest reward for a government prioritizing general welfare.

This shows why the government giving out more than D40 million is based on other ulterior motives. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the stated objective of the government is true. In that case, why would the government choose certain newspapers but exclude others? After all, all existing newspapers should be eligible because their very existence is proof of the fact that they have some significant size of readership or viewership.

Another angle is that if the stated objective is simply about publicizing government activities, why not use the money to invest in improving publicly own media such as the GRTS? As anyone can attest, the GRTS is in dire need of investment in modern equipment and capacity building. Moreover, the amount of money that the GRTS would need would be far lower than what the government is spending in this ill-conceived scheme.

In fact, to get an idea of how little the government cares about improving public media or quality of journalism in general, consider the budget allocation for the Ministry of Information. The total allocation to the Ministry of Information in the 2024 budget was about D39.8 million. Out of this amount, D37.3 million was for recurrent expenditures and only D2.5 million was for development expenditures.

In other words, the amount paid to certain media houses favored by Adama Barrow’s NPP was more than the total annual budget allocation for the Ministry of Information. A government that cares about media quality and journalism in general would not allocate only D2.5 million for development expenditures, while secretly bribing other media houses multiples of that amount. So instead of investments in the journalism programs at the University of The Gambia or at GTMI, we get this unethical scheme.

As for the media houses that accepted these payments, let’s call a spade a spade. These payments are nothing but bribes. The media houses that accepted these payments under these conditions are quite aware of the dubious nature of the arrangement. This is why they did not report on these payments when the agreements were signed because they know they are complicit in this dubious affair.

Under normal circumstances, it should be a highly newsworthy event when the government pays an amount as large as D40 million dalasi for a select group of news-reporting entities to deliver positive coverage. It is even more so when the recipients would normally be expected to deliver such a service objectively and impartially, as well as without payment from the subjects of their reporting.

The fact that these media houses received these payments and did not willingly report the arrangement to the public is what qualifies the whole scheme as unseemly and effectively a bribe. Moreover, according to The Republic’s reporting, these media houses are supposed to produce some sort of “deliverables” to ensure that they receive the balance of the payments. One wonders how they will be reported on their deliverables.

Every article about the government written by these newspapers or news items broadcasted by these media houses are tainted. How can we be sure that these media houses would let their audiences know which of their reporting is regular journalism and which is paid content? How can we believe which is which even if they volunteer the information?

After all, these recipients did not report on this ethically questionable arrangement when the agreement was struck. They kept it a secret because they knew it was wrong. This is unfortunate because the rank-and-file reporters of these media houses may be excellent reporters and probably did not see a butut of the payments that their bosses received. I doubt any of the rank-and-file journalists of these media houses received a raise in their salaries.

As The Republic newspaper has recently reported, this dubious plan may have begotten further corruption. It appears that other two of the beneficiaries (Fandema Multimedia and Sparkling Multimedia), which apparently are under a single ownership, benefited mainly due to their connection with the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry, Yankuba Saidy. This is a matter that requires investigation if the government is serious about good governance. But we would be naïve to expect any such action from this government. After all, this odious arrangement originated from the State House.

The response of the Ministry of Finance is more than disappointing but unsurprising given the incompetence of Minister Seedy Keita. A serious and competent Minister of Finance that is tasked with public finance management would react quite differently than the response given by Mr. Keita when confronted with such a gross misuse of public money and flouting of the established budgeting process. But at this point, is anyone surprised by the fact that Adama Barrow is surrounded by incompetent officials at the level of Ministers and Permanent Secretaries?

It is useful to end such a discussion on who is ultimately responsible. This unfortunate spectacle would not have happened if Adama Barrow’s government were interested in national development. This is a government that is only interested in perpetuating its rule, and therefore its highest consideration in any activity is political. What’s more, Adama Barrow and his senior officials are acutely aware of the fact that they are not delivering because a government that is confident in its ability to deliver actual results instead of producing mirages would have no need to bribe media groups for positive coverage.

Ousman Gajigo is a former Manager of the Microeconomic, Institutional, and Development Impact Division in the Research Department of the African Development Bank (AfDB). Dr Gajigo is also an agricultural entrepreneur with at least 3 farms across the Gambia. He recently started Seeds for Prosperity, a charity, to help Gambian women gardeners have access to seeds and water.