26.2 C
City of Banjul
Saturday, May 25, 2024
spot_img
spot_img

Price of publicity: How selected Gambian media get hefty cheques to “portray good image of the government”

- Advertisement -

By Mustapha K Darboe

Half of the D40 million contract that The Gambia government signed with selected private media companies was paid in February. The Republic has found out that two of the seven contracted entities that cumulatively received close to 30% of the total contract sum are allegedly owned by one person. Not only was the contract not budgeted in the 2024 national budget, but its execution is not also linked to any tangible deliverable which makes it impossible to measure value for money.

After his successful presidential election where he defeated the United Democratic Party (UDP) in 2021,  President Adama Barrow’s National People’s Party (NPP) has seen a decline in its political fortunes during the subsequent parliamentary and local government elections.

- Advertisement -

The Cabinet was concerned and sometime in January 2023, according to a source at the State House, a discussion was held to diagnose this political misfortune. The office of the Chief of Staff Mod K Ceesay and the Ministry of Information, then headed by Lamin Queen Jammeh, were reportedly tasked to devise a mechanism to position NPP into the hearts and minds of Gambians. A 3-page media visibility proposal was drafted in June 2023.

“The meetings were done at the office of the Chief of Staff. The initiative came from the Office of the President and whatever directly affects the president is handled by the chief of staff…,” said a source at the State House who does not want to be named.

It was at such meetings that the proposal was finalised for the NPP government to pay the media to promote its agenda to the electorate. Media houses that are deemed friendly to the government were identified and contacted to send their bids to the Ministry of Information. A contract was subsequently prepared in November 2023 by the Ministry.

- Advertisement -

The Gambia Public Procurement Authority gave its blessing on 1 December 2023 in a letter copied to the Chief of Staff. The Republic has learned the contract was sent to the office of the Attorney General for review when a policy decision was already made at the State House to award the contract to a list of identified media companies.

There is no publicly available evidence of a go-ahead from the MoJ, following its review of the draft contract. As part of the review, the justice ministry wrote to the Ministry of Information asking for a list of media houses contracted to conduct due diligence. On January 27— shortly before the contract was signed on February 14— the Ministry sent a follow-up letter to the MoJ soliciting their final approval following the first amendments. The Republic did not see evidence of this final approval from MoJ.

“The contract, I believe, was just taken to the AG’s office to complete the process but not for a critical review. Under normal circumstances, they would not have endorsed this…,” a senior official at the Office of the President told The Republic.  

In compliance with Article 7 of the contract which requires the government to pay 50% of contract value upon signing, the Ministry of Information paid at least D20.5m to the contracting companies. Since the Ministry has neither a budget line nor funds for the promotion of government agenda, the money for this contract was paid from a virement from the Ministry of Finance. The remaining amount is to be paid in two phases — 30% and 20% – before the contract period elapses in December 2024. It remains to be seen which other budget line will be sacrificed for the outstanding payments of the contract.

‘Abusing the process’

In November, 2023— about a month before lawmakers passed the 2024 budget, a conversation started at the State House and the Ministry of Information to hand over a contract value more than the total 2024 budget of the Ministry to private media companies for a “popularisation of the government agenda”

In what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, the hefty pay cheque for journalists was not included in the national budget. Virement became the only viable option to finance such unbudgeted expenditure. Virement is a transfer of funds from one budget line to another. In February, the Ministry of Finance, under an instruction from the Office of the President, transferred the sum of D20.5m, representing 50% of the contract value, to the Ministry of Information for onward payment to the selected media houses.

Until the time of this publication, the Ministry of Finance did not respond to request for clarification over which budget line was the money vired from and the budget line under the Ministry of Information it was transferred to.

Hon. Samba Jallow, a former minority leader and lawmaker for Niamina Dankunku, said virement should not be allowed under these circumstances.

“Each ministry is a different entity. Money is appropriated to each of them by the parliament. If money from any of their budget line is not completely used, they should utilise that fund under another budget line within the same ministry,” argued Hon Jallow.

“But if a ministry developed a program, as it happened under the Ministry of Information under this project, they cannot vire money to execute that program. This was initiated after the budget was passed.”

Section 29 (4) of the Public Finance Act also prohibits virement of any amount more than 75% of the original allocation of the receiving budget item. Meanwhile, the total project value is more than the entire budget of the Ministry of Information by about half a million Dalasis.

When contacted for explanation as to why virement should be allowed for a contract which had enough time to be budgeted, the Minister of Finance Hon. Seedy Keita said “that one, the sector ministry is responsible”.

Flouting procurement laws

The official records seen by The Republic show that the Gambia Public Procurement Authority approved the agenda-promotion contract as a restricted tender on December 1 2023.

Though restricted tendering— a procurement method where a selected number of suppliers is chosen to provide services— is allowed by the GPPA Act, there are a few laid down rules.

Among them is that the services ought to be specialised in nature, in which case, only those selected could do it, according to Section 44 of the GPPA Act. It has to be urgent too. The GPPA regulations 2023 also added additional requirements under section 93.

“Pursuant to Section 44 of the Act: All suppliers capable of supplying the goods, works or services shall be solicited,” it states. “The Procuring Organization shall solicit bids from a minimum number of five independent economic operators.”

When asked if these laws and regulations guiding restricted tendering under the GPPA Act were followed in approving the contract, the Authority said, in one sentence, its “approval is consistent with the dictates of the Procurement Act”.

One of the principles governing procurement as set out under Section 20 of the GPPA Act is ensuring value for money. The Republic asked how the Authority considered D5.5m to be the best market rate for the services required of the selected media houses within a year, considering alternative market prices were not sought from other media houses.

Its compliance department said that question is for the Ministry of Information. Our questions to the ministry were not answered until the time of this publication.

The contract fee for each media house as detailed on the approval issued by the Gambia Public Procurement Authority:

·           QTV Gambia: D5, 749, 824:

·           Mediamatic and Paradise TV: D5, 726, 400

·           Fatu Network: D5, 976, 000

·           Star TV/Radio: D5, 745, 000

·           Eye Africa TV: D5, 723, 424

·           Fandema Multimedia: D5, 650, 000

·           Sparkling Multimedia: D5, 575, 000

Two names, same production team?

When the initial decision was made to use the media to promote the government’s agenda, only the five news media companies were identified by the State House in Banjul. No content creator was to be part of the contract. It was the Ministry of Information that added the dimension of including content creators in the contract and eventually identified and added two video production companies, according to Yankuba Saidy, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Information.

“… This was initiated at a meeting at the OP that established a gap in government communication,” Saidy told The Standard newspaper. “We only added the content development component…”  The available information suggests those content creators–Fandema Multimedia, registered on November 26, 2015 and Sparkling Multimedia Agency, registered on January 17, 2023— are owned by the same person and the name on their registration is merely a front. While Fandema has a Facebook page, and an office, it does not have a functioning website as of April 9 2024.

The Republic has verified that the mobile numbers on the registration details of Sparkling belong to Sulayman Sawaneh, a brother of Sheikh Omar who serves as their accountant. One of his Africell numbers was used to create Sulayman’s Facebook account.

On April 6 2024, The Republic dialed Sulayman’s mobile numbers on the registration details of Sparkling, the receiver of the call claimed he is Muhammed Kanteh. On April 7 2024, The Republic— using another number and another person— dialed the same number asking for Sulayman, the receiver of the call who claimed to be his brother, and only a day earlier Muhammed Kanteh, said Sulayman is currently out of the country but can be available on WhatsApp using the same number.

At least three sources familiar with Sheikh Omar’s work affirmed his ownership of Sparkling. When contacted, Sheikh Omar neither denied nor confirmed the information.

“The ownership, I am not sure what to say about that. I am not sure if we can discuss that,” he said, adding that the process was approved by the Gambia Public Procurement Authority.

It is unclear exactly the beginning of the relationship between the Ministry of Information and Sawaneh, but evidence shows it pre-dated the recent contract signed on February 12. On December 6, 2023, only about 5 days after the GPPA approved the contract, the Ministry of Information published a promotional video on its Facebook page produced by Fandema, praising the government for the passing of the Access to Information Act.

At least two senior government officials said PS Saidy and Sheikh Omar are “very close”; they are more like buddies. While The Republic is unable to independently establish a social relationship between the two, it is important to reaffirm that PS Saidy is the administrative head of the Ministry of Information and an influential figure in adding the dimension of content creators to the contract. Sheikh Omar is the registered owner of the content creation company, Fandema, and is also believed to be the beneficial owner of Sparkling Media.

The ambiguity

Since the signing of the contract between government and the private media and production companies in February— despite calls for more transparency— both the government and the private media houses failed to publish the contract.

But not only does the process which started from the State House violate basic procurement procedures, there is lack of clarity over services the government was paying for.

“We have no idea how the costing was done. You need the deliverables to be able to do the costing. It is really bogus. It is not tangible,” said a source from the State House who does not want to be named. 

“For example, it does not make sense for them to approve the same amount for content creators and media owners. It does not cost the same to produce content and air them.”

At least two media companies that benefited from the contract have said it will not affect their editorial independence.

While this contract was effective February 2024, a review of the content of the media companies executing it shows none of their contents was marked as ‘paid for’ or ‘advertisement’.

In a statement issued on April 18 2024, the Gambia Press Union urged the media platforms to “state that certain news and programmes are paid content – for the audience to be able to distinguish what content was independently-produced and what was not”.

We have made several attempts to speak to the permanent secretary Yankuba Saidy and Chief of Staff Mod K Ceesay but our calls were not answered, nor were our text messages.

Source: The Republic

Join The Conversation
- Advertisment -spot_img
- Advertisment -spot_img