Commentary | Gambian Media and the COVID Money: The Rumbles and Grumbles
These days in our country, talk of money and its usage or the lack of it seems to be a permanent fixture in most public discourse. In fact, CORRUPTION is arguably one of the most widely used words, with or without evidence of it being occasioned. It is even common nowadays to see outrageously jovial comments like “we are better off selling this country so the money can be shared fairly amongst the citizens. Those may be mere jokes, but such a line underlines the foreboding sense of national malaise and discontent on the part of the citizenry.
So, as sections of the public and Gambia’s online community were frowning upon a motion seeking to provide a 54 million Dalasi loan package for parliamentarians, a few innuendo questions from some of my colleagues also emerged on social media. The point of their thinly veiled Facebook outburst was not explicitly clear, perhaps out of fear for internal reprisal or lack of clarity on the intent and purpose of what is dubbed Covid-19 Media Support Grant.
The raison d'être of the funds
For starters, the Covid-19 media support grant is the by-product of engagements between Gambia Press Union (GPU) and the ministries of Health and information and Communications Infrastructure informed by the plight and/or vulnerabilities of journalists in the face of Covid-19. The justification is that besides reporters, a host of media practitioners such as camera operators have been at the front and center of efforts to contain the pandemic, qualifying them as front-line workers. They may not be mentioned in the same bracket as doctors and nurses, but the media’s role in disseminating Covid-19 related information is no less important. This was even more crucial at a time when the so-called denial syndrome was refusing to go away. In the end, a D15 million package was shared among a total of 45 media houses from across all news media sectors: newspapers, commercial radios, community radios, private television stations, and online media. The money was proportionately shared taking cognizance of the staff strength and other operational expenses of the entity.
Will the media cozy up to government because of the Covid-19 support grant?
Even as discussions were underway to iron out the finer details of the Covid-19 Media Support Grant,some observers expressed fears that media house sthat took delivery of the package may find it difficult to speak truth to power or in a broader context put the government and its agencies in check if and when they falter. For such critics, the media by all accounts should stay away from any form of cash injection from the state as it tantamount the classic case of taming the beast into silence or more extremely turning the media into the lapdog of the powers that be. For others too, there are certain public sector employees that are more deserving of these funds than media people despite failing to bring out any correlations between those poorly paid public servants and the COVID-19 money in question.
Can a one-off financial incentivization from the state make the media shy away from its cardinal responsibility of holding the government to account? Personally, I doubt so. My argument is that governments do not necessarily need to dole-out money to gag the press. History would tell us that the promulgation and enforcement of repressive laws has and always will be the Achilles-heel of the media. In our case, one other way of such an unhealthy thing will be government resorting to denying the media advertisements through its institutions. But chances of that happening look slim or almost non-existent so long as public institutions, particularly departments and parastatals remain operational. In all fairness,citizens are within their rights to question any move they believe could compromise the independence of the media giving the industry’s status as the supposed ‘last best hope’ in a democracy.
What we need to know
While it will be utterly disingenuous to accuse any media chief of anything ever since money exchanged hands, it will be helpful for the purpose of clarity to state here the ELIGIBLE EXPENSES as far as the Covid-19 media support grant is concerned. Also, it would appear not every journalist is clear about the funds and the purpose for which they are meant. Here is the meat of the matter:
1. The grantee is only permitted to expend or incur costs related to: payment of salaries and wages for staff and free media practitioners
2. Hands-on, in-house general training on job-related skills operational expenses such as electricity and water bills, consumables such as newsprint, fuel, internet data, inks, boom poles, mic shields, reorders and laptops, and PPE such as masks and disinfectants
3. At least 50 % of the entire grant received by a Grantee shall be spent on payment of salaries and wages for staff and freelance
4. For the avoidance of doubt, capital expenditure such as purchase of vehicles, landed properties, computers and heavy-duty printers shall not be eligible
See money, see trouble but asking simple questions won’t hurt
For a lowly paid industry like journalism, Covid-19 only added fuel to the flame. Years before the virus hit our shores, the case of journalists running heavy on passion but light on money has been well documented. It’s a reality that is pushing many out of newsrooms these days for fields that yield better take-homes. And in the face of the pandemic, I have it on good authority that some media practitioners were made redundant while others have their salaries slashed. For those that were laid off and/or suffered salary cuts due to plummeting revenues triggered by the pandemic, their welfare should be treated as a matter of utmost priority by the management of affected media houses. This will only serve to inspire confidence and trust in employee-employer relations. With money hitting the accounts of the beneficiary media houses, it will also help the cause of all parties if open-air discussions are held to clear any lingering doubts in the minds of journalists who never hesitate to ask others the tough questions, but conversely get nervy when the matter is internal.
There is no fire in the fat yet, but few recent grumbles online cannot be disregarded.
Famara Fofana is a freelance journalist and a student of Media and Communications Studies. He is also the author of When My Village Was My Village.