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Sierra Leone journalism on the advertiser’s leash

By Isaac Massaquoi

I am bringing to print a debate I once floated on the SLAJ Whatsapp Group about a month ago concerning how advertisers are negatively impacting journalism in Sierra Leone. I argued on that forum – and I am doing here again – that even more than our draconian media laws, advertisers in both the private and public sectors are to a large extent responsible for the poverty and considerable drop in professionalism in the Sierra Leone media, especially in the newspaper industry.

I will support this argument soon but let me say from the outset that drawing from reactions on that forum and in conversations with other colleagues, I can safely say that even SLAJ doesn't seem to have a plan that details how they intend to tackle the most serious challenge to the survival of newspapers and professionalism in the media in general.

There are other forces at play in this vicious cycle including the journalists themselves. Here's an example to illustrate this: I arrived at the Independent Media Commission (IMC) one Tuesday afternoon for a normal Complaints Committee meeting only to witness the most bizarre case ever throughout my six years on that board. A newspaper had published a series of articles in three editions accusing the Communications Director of a government agency of corruption and indiscipline, relating to his conduct in office and in particular to his handling of advertising. The paper accused the man of insisting on getting huge commission payout from newspapers before they were included on the list of papers to advertise with. The accusations were written in graphic language that ridiculed the official. To me this issue was cut and dry – the editor was never going to be able to prove those allegations and a hefty fine was on the cards.

As soon as we asked the editor to explain his writings with regard to accuracy and balance in the light of the official's strong denials, he collapsed on his knees, pleaded for mercy and offered to retract the story with an apology. It turned out that the editor had merely used his paper to get at the Communications Director, because he had refused to get his organisation to pay for a piece of advertising that had not been commissioned in the first place. The newspaper had simply taken the material out of the pages of another newspaper for publication and billed the organisation. I have strenuously refused to name the characters in this drama so that I don't distract you from the points I want to make. I will return to this later.

Advertising agents are another headache to the survival of newspapers. Many institutions prefer to place adverts using the services of agents so they don't have to deal directly with many newspapers – in the fierce competition for the few adverts around. That could be a frightening experience. Others use their Public Relations Officers. Ideally, this is the way it should work: the organisations develop a database of their preferred newspapers depending of course on a number of factors which I will discuss later; when a piece of advertising is available they dispatch them to those newspapers with appropriate instructions as to method of publication. After the publication, the papers submit copies of those publications with an invoice for the institutions to pay up. But every media owner knows how much of a far cry the situation is from this.

In this side of the game the payment of commission to the agencies and some PROs is taking a heavy toll on business. Some agents demand up to 25% of the cost of the advertisement as commission, 15% more than what is normally the case. If a particular newspaper decides to hold out against such naked rip-off, they are simply sidelined by the PROs or advert agents. It's amazing that some Public Relations Officers collect such payments for their pockets when in reality any such commission payment should be to the benefit of the institution they represent. Sometimes, the commission war leads to inordinate delays or non-payment for advertising services.

At Politico, we have had experience of some staff in government departments virtually harassing our finance department for money every time payments are made. Ask any newspaper house in this country, the story is the same. Preparing for this piece, I spoke to a handful of newspaper editors. One of them told me that three government agencies collectively owed him about Le 100 million for advertising done three months before Christmas 2014. So take that situation through just 10 newspapers and get the whole picture.

Government ministries, departments and agencies which are the biggest advertisers are the main contributors to the poverty in the newspaper industry in Sierra Leone. Let's face it, how can a newspaper attract the best journalists when they pay ridiculous wages? Even the young school leavers who end up in newsrooms realise quickly that they work in sweatshop conditions and have no future so they engage in the kind of journalism that the same government people complain about all the time. I make no case for reckless journalism, but unless the situation in the media – particularly with newspapers – is understood holistically, any hasty conclusion would be grossly unfair.

The age old argument about government using advertising as a means to punish papers they deem critical, holds true in Sierra Leone. When you get your newspapers in the morning please make a list of all advertising from government ministries and agencies in the different newspapers. Do that over a week and draw your own conclusions. Those things don't happen by mistake. Some of us have studied this situation over long periods for two reasons: as people operating in the industry, it is in our interest to try and understand why we could hardly break even when, as we suspect, a few others who are close to the powers are doing very well. The second reason is that sometimes we want to make arguments about the political economy of the newspaper industry in Sierra Leone. Such empirical evidence is as potent as the drone technology used by the United States military against criminals in Yemen or Somalia.

Individual advert agents are the ones that are most difficult to handle. We have about five currents cases in which agents placed adverts with us on behalf of reputable institutions but have refused to pay for such jobs done more than a year ago. It’s unimaginable! We are not alone.

Sometimes we think about publishing the names of the institutions that placed the adverts, but because we know where the problem lies we decide not to cause them any embarrassment. The danger in not taking such action is that the corrupt and shameless advert agents continue to maintain their cover when they should be publicly shamed and made to lose their contracts.

Again, in the ideal world, advertising is placed in newspapers based on a number of factors including the extent of a particular newspaper's circulation and impact. Adherence to ethical standards and accurate reporting also come in to the mix. No institution should allow itself to be associated with a newspaper that makes absolutely no effort to be accurate and is unethical and continuously plagiarises materials. Take a close look at how adverts are placed in this country and see if any such consideration comes into play.

I raised the plight of newspapers at the hand of MDAs in particular with the president of SLAJ and urged him to find a way out of the quagmire. He was aware of the situation. In fact a week before I approached him on the issue he had taken the unusual step for his nicely brought-up and well-behaved newspaper, to threaten to name and shame his debtors. On the SLAJ Whatsapp forum the mood was the same – the competition among newspapers makes it very difficult for them to speak with one voice on this issue and the advertisers are exploiting the situation. Simple!

I suggested that SLAJ should initiate a survey to determine the circulation and impact of all newspapers to help MDAs determine where to place advertising. The government or international agencies can fund that study. Many on the SLAJ forum argued that some newspapers wouldn't cooperate. That may well happen. All I can say is that it would be in their interest to participate. A similar study has been done for radio. Whether that has affected how advertising is distributed among the radio stations is another issue. In the case of newspapers, I believe it will dramatically change the advertising landscape. Once the result of the survey becomes public knowledge, it will be difficult for manipulative Public Relations Officers in the private and public sectors to place advertising based on how much commission would end up in their pockets.

The scene in that IMC Complaints Committee room I described earlier mirrors the extent to which some of our colleagues go to keep their papers alive. I am not making a case for that act of desperation but I understand why the man behaved that way.

In neighbouring Liberia the situation is much better. I see no reason why we can't do the same here. There is a sense in which many in SLAJ think there can be no change because there are colleagues who like the system the way it is and would do everything to undermine moves to bring about a radical change. That may be so but change doesn't come cheap.

© Politico 15/01/15