Sierra Leone: Media Moves Against Turbulent Waves

22 September 2006 at 14:31 | 599 views

"It is not only Alpha Jalloh who has had such problems. Alusine Fofana of the Focus newspaper, Ibrahim B. Kargbo president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and editor of the New Citizen newspaper have all recounted similar experiences."

By Isata Lebbie, Freetown

The Sierra Leone media is struggling against the harsh realities of a post- war era but its greatest problem has been recalcitrant and criminal debtors.

Many institutions in tne country advertise in newspapers dictating dates on which adverts should be published but it takes ages for payment to be made. It has hamstrung several newspapers that have millions out there but lack adequate finances. The worst debtors have been some UN agencies. It sometimes takes them up to three months or more to make payments. Worst of all, sometimes after a long delay, some members of staff at these agencies claim that payment is "missing" or has been "mistakenly" paid to another newspaper.

"Mistaken" payment or disappearance of bills is a common phenomenon in the accounting departments of some institutions.

"What is responsible for such so-called mistakes or disappearance of bills is that accounting staff collude with some unscrupulous journalists and make payments through such newspapers and later collect such payments from them. The journalists get a commission for the whole deal", says Alpha R. Jalloh editor of The Independent who suffered a similar fate at the UNDP. Alpha claims that he had similar experiences at the Sierra Leone Brewery and some institutions.

He recalls that last year, he advertised for the National Electoral Commission. "After months, I went to check for payment at the UNDP which should pay for NEC because it had approved funds for NEC’s operations. A member of staff called Ursula Davies told me that payment was not yet ready", he said adding that when he went to NEC, he was told that payment had already been made to some newspapers.

He said he went to UNDP office again and was told that there was no payment for him. He was asked to prepare bills again which he did. " I went to NEC who placed the advert, they told me that there was no need to prepare bills again as my payment was supposed to be with UNDP. He says he was given proof that payment was with UNDP. "Then I confronted Ursula, she admitted, but gave an excuse that my money was mistakenly paid to The Independent Observer newspaper. What surprised me was that when I looked at the payment voucher, the payment was made weeks after I started making enquiries and worst of all, The Independent Observer had collected their own payment. No newspaper was supposed to collect two payments. How come the so-called mistake was done?"

Alpha said he was told by Urusla to go to The Independent Observer to collect the money. "When I went there they denied having knowledge of such payment", he said adding that it was when he threatened Ursula and another accounting staff called Oya, that they asked him to meet with them at The Independent Observer’s office.

"I got part of the money and that was the end".

He says he has recently advertised for the Ministry of Information and when the bills were presented he was told that it was UNDP that would pay.

"After almost two months, some newspapers were paid. I went to the same Urusula again, who gave an excuse that I did not present a Work Order from the Ministry of Information even though it was the Ministry itself that gave the documents to them for payment. I took it to her. She insisted that the money would be paid into my account even though other newspapers were paid through checks. I objected explaining that I had suffered fraud in some institutions through such method of payment. They usually prepare fake letters, which they show to whoever they owe claiming that payment has been made. I told her that it was staff at the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank that revealed to me that it was a way of frauding people because if the order is genuinely made it takes only five working days for the person to get it. She however insisted and I acquiesced".

Alpha says after weeks, she called him and told him that he should prepare a bill for half the amount. "I asked her why. She said there was only one advertisement instead of two. I insisted that I did present to the Ministry of Information two adverts published on different dates, and they examined it and affirmed that it was okay".

"However, I took two copies again to her and up to this time I’ve not heard from her".

It is not only Alpha Jalloh who has had such problems. Alusine Fofana of the Focus newspaper, Ibrahim B. Kargbo president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists and editor of the New Citizen newspaper have all recounted similar experiences.

"Sometimes it is embarrassing when you are expecting payment and you are told that your money has been mistakenly paid into another’s account. I had a similar experience recently", says I. B. Kargbo.

The "mistakes" are becoming widespread. Many journalists have suffered especially since the cost of production is more than what a paper is sold. One newspaper cost one thousand seven hundred to be produced and it is sold for six hundred Leones to vendors who sell it at One thousand Leones.

For an institution like UNDP to be making such "mistakes" frequently, causing loss to journalists has caused eyebrows to be raised.

Some journalists say Ursula and Oya are in a world of their own at UNDP where they seem to be under nobody’s control. Some journalists say there is a need for restructuring in the UNDP starting from the apex.

Photo: J. Victor Angelo, UNDP Resident Representative in Sierra Leone (centre).