By James Tamba Lebbie
There are several indications that our so-called public broadcaster, the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) is a sinking ship. My assertion is informed by two audit reports on that institution which were commissioned by the Government of Sierra Leone, and both completed at the end of 2011 but, apparently, deliberately concealed from the public because their findings and recommendations made grim reading. In other words both reports have revealed the stark and uncomfortable reality of the administrative and financial malfunctions of the corporation’s management.
The first report, done by the respected accounting and audit firm, KPMG, and which Politico received and published last year, was on the SLBC’s financial system. It revealed a pathetic picture of plunder of resources and administrative incompetence of the Corporation’s management. In response, the SLBC management published a press release in which it vilified Politico’s investigative team and used it as content to fill its idle airtime. I will probably remind you of the key findings of the KPMG report.
Meanwhile the other report which is on SLBC’s editorial competence, or lack thereof, was completed in December 2011 by Elizabeth Smith, an expert in public broadcasting and former Secretary General of the Commonwealth Broadcasters’ Association. Among other issues the report pointed out, it strongly corroborated in detail the findings of the KPMG audit report. In specific terms, the report described the attempt to set up a public broadcaster in Sierra Leone as a failed endeavor. For instance, the report’s recommendations are prefaced by an observation that “the breakdown in relationship between the Board and the management is paralyzing the organization”, noting also that “there is an almost total lack of financial planning, no management budget, and inadequate procedures to control and prioritize spending”.
These points are very interesting. The KPMG report made similar observation in its financial audit report and when Politico reported it, the messenger was vilified and crucified. Reiterating it by Smith’s Capacity Assessment Exercise therefore substantiate the point that the management of the SLBC is inept and compromised at best. So, while calling on the government to publish the report and to newspapers to serialize it in the public’s interest because the SLBC claims to be a public entity, I will in the interim endeavor to capture the key recommendations made by the Smith report for the purpose of commenting on them.
For its recommendations, the report calls for a recovery plan that is captured under “immediate steps” and “longer term”. Under “immediate steps” the report calls for a “change of leadership”, slashing cost, stop “leakages”, and maximizing income. It also calls for “modern financial procedures and a budget based on commercial realities”. Under the same category, the recommendation calls for finding “the best people and the best managers”. It also makes the interesting point that for the SLBC to deliver its public service broadcasting mandate, revisiting the recruitment process of the organization “must be” seriously considered.
I have pointed out in the past – even if dismissed by sections of the Board and the management of the SLBC as mischief making – that there was absolute need for a complete overhaul of SLBC’s top management cadre if it is to be taken seriously. As if I was a bit generous in my comments, the report now talks of the whole recruitment process as being flawed. And while the report noted that “the nation’s public service broadcaster needs the best talent it can find”, it also observed that “previous recruitment process” have been “restricted to internal candidates, freezing out potential candidates”. This is a likely outcome of any attempt to create a new institution out of two old existing structures and using with few exceptions, the same old staff, especially when the mandate, vision and mission of the previous institution are fundamentally different from the new one. The point I want to make is the fact – with some anecdotal evidence that almost all those working earlier for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Service and the United Nations Radio already had their mindset accustomed to a particular template of pro-establishment or even government-controlled broadcasting. Therefore, largely using the same old staff to deliver a new public service mandate in the context of a public service ethos is an extremely tall order.
In addition, under the recommended long term recovery plan, the report among other things calls for an amendment of the SLBC Act of 2010; the removal of salaries for Board Members; incorporating the regions within the mainstream SLBC; and getting training underway from international organisations. Smith’s call for an amendment of the SLBC Act has corroborated my earlier argument that the Act is flawed in many respects. Of particular interest to me is her recommendation that the Board should appoint the Director General who should be a non-political broadcasting manager. What obtains now wherein the President appoints the DG on the recommendation of the Board is a far cry from Smith’s recommendation. And the interesting reason about Smith’s recommendation on this point is that the Board should be able to dismiss the DG as a way of increasing “the chances of a competent and neutral professional in the post, and to give a route by which the organization resolves its own problems rather than by turning to the government to sort things out, so compromising the SLBC’s independence”.
Besides, the report also calls for the DG to cease being the secretary to the Board. There is need to underscore this point because my source within the Board has informed me that the Board has tried several times without success to get rid of the DG because of his incompetence, among other reasons. And sources within the SLBC Board have intimated me that the survival of both the DG and his deputy in their posts have been largely due to the insistence of the sacked minister of information and communication, Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, who was protecting them apparently out of political expediency.
But these findings are too serious to ignore especially when they concern a public institution like the SLBC. And Smith’s findings corroborated, in many respects, those of KPMG’s, which the SLBC Board and management earlier dismissed as a “draft”. In that leaked report, the KPMG says the entire system of control, including the accounting and procurement mechanisms established by the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) is generally “very inefficient or non-existent.” The document reveals among other things that “sufficient and appropriate audit evidence is lacking” for “property, plant and equipment amounting to 11 Billion Leones,” adding that the corporation has maintained an “unhealthy” cash management system.
According to the report, the procurement process of the SLBC satellite uplink was seriously flawed. It says the Board of Trustees approved on 18 November, 2010 the option of the SLBC to own a satellite uplink. The report says “three quotation invoices were considered in selecting the consultant of the Satellite uplink” but instead of the consultant assisting the SLBC “to select a credible supplier based on proper transparent procurement procedures, it turned out that the consultant invoiced the corporation for the supply of the equipment in his own name (Transtech International Limited).”
Additionally, the report says that payments were also made to this same consultant for the equipment. It notes that another payment was made to the Transtech International Limited “for a backup uplink satellite and transmitter amounting to about 692 Million Leones”, which were never supplied to the SLBC nor was the money refunded to the corporation.
KPMG notes then that the SLBC and its management are “clearly in breach of the Public Procurement Act 2004, and the failure of the consultant to deliver as contracted may be tantamount to fraud.” It therefore recommends that the “entire procurement process relating to the purchase of the satellite uplink should be thoroughly investigated” to be followed by “appropriate” and “corrective action.”
While it is not entirely clear whether President Koroma has seen and read the Elizabeth Smith report, past examples reveal that studies and commissions of inquiry have been established only for the findings and recommendations to be ignored. I hope this report does not lay idle on dusty shelves. If any anything, the president should come to terms with the fact that this time round he should be working to leave a decent political legacy and not to continue pleasing his friends and allies. Currently, what we have in operation now is a classic façade of a public broadcaster and this is simply unacceptable in this 21st century. The government should stop fooling the people and overhaul the entire structure and funding mechanism of the SLBC or allow the country to revert to the old SLBS paradigm.
(C) Politico 31/01/13