Opinions Wed, 3 Dec 2014
S. Kwaku AsareThe International Transport Forum (ITF) is offering to cover travel costs and accommodation for a limited number of journalists from non-European countries (http://www.eltis.org/discover/news/travel-grant-journalists-attend-transport-ministers-summit-0#sthash.VXhNrOxJ.dpuf). In our local parlance, the ITF can be said to be offering “soli” to the journalists. Is this offer of soli to journalists from less wealthy nations an unethical practice, designed to corrupt them? Or is it a subsidy that enhances information flow?
This is the essence of the debate that has engaged the minds of many commentators in the last few days. It is fair to say that the preponderance of the comments have taken a negative view of soli, consistent with the position taken by the British High Commissioner in his speech delivered at the IMANI event. Notwithstanding the avalanche of criticisms, I am afraid that the case against 'soli' has not been made. Soli, as used here and in the debate, refers to travel and transport paid by an event organizer to journalists who cover the event. It has three distinctive attributes: (i) it is a voluntary payment by the event organizer; (ii) it is not conditional on type of coverage; (iii) it is paid to all journalists.
Two mutually exclusive propositions have emerged from the debate: (1) soli is inherently/incurably bad and unethical. As such, it must be banned; (2) Soli is not inherently or incurably bad. In fact, it can improve information flow. However, the soli process should be improved. The first proposition appears to be the majority view.
The propositions are mutually exclusive because one cannot embrace both, as some have done or attempted to do. For instance, one cannot hold the view that soli is bad and must be banned at the same time that one advocates that the soli process must be made more transparent.
Transparency cannot cure a practice that is inherently bad or unethical. Consider the payment of a contingent fee to the media (i.e., I will pay you if your report a news item a certain way). That is not just inherently unethical and unlawful but more important it cannot be cured by being made transparent. An inherently unethical practice cannot be clothed with propriety by making it transparent. No amount of transparency or issuing receipts will make bribing a policeman acceptable. According to Samson Lardy, “soli is soli is soli.” This is apposite and carries with it the implication that soli cannot sometimes be a corrupt practice and sometimes a best practice. As such, making soli payments transparent or advertising its availability, as done by ITF, does not cure its defect. According to the majority proposition, the defect is fatal!
In contrast, I take the minority view that soli is not inherently a corrupt practice. In fact, it is used everywhere in the world. In a country like Ghana, where the media houses are poor, an anti soli policy will actually worsen, not improve, corruption by shutting down critical avenues to information.
While the condemnation of soli has been widespread, I find that nobody has made a persuasive case that it is per se unethical or unlawful for an organizer of an event to cover a journalist's travel and transport expenses, especially where such coverage is publicly announced, is directed to strengthening most, if not all, of our impoverished media houses and is not conditional upon the nature of the coverage.
Still, I believe that the soli process can be improved. For instance, the soli giver must preannounce the soli policy and identify all those who are eligible for its enjoyment. Moreover, the soli giver must advise the media houses of any soli payments made to journalists to avoid double dipping (i.e., where the journalist collects soli from both the event organizer and the employer). Capping the amount that is paid for soli or indexing it to the number of miles that the journalist must travel to cover the event or even to the financial muscle of the media house are other ways to improve the process.
In my opinion, the soli debate masks an important corrupt practice, which I refer to as “tapoli.” Tapoli is the bribing of a journalist to procure a favorable coverage of a story or to disseminate misleading information. Tapoli is both unethical and criminal and serves no useful social purposes. Tapoli corrupts journalists, poisons the information well, has no place in our society and those who practice it must be pursued and punished. But tapoli is not to be confused with soli.
Soli differs from tapoli in several important respects. First, soli is typically paid by NGOs (or other event organizers) who seek to draw attention of the general public to topics that they address in workshops or other capacity building activities. Second, soli payers have little interest in influencing the content of the story to be carried by the journalists as long as the event is publicized. Frequently, sponsors of the NGO have stipulated such media coverage as a condition precedent to funding the workshop. Third, soli is paid to all attending journalists and is not conditioned on the content of their coverage. Hence, soli is not a contingent payment. Fourth, soli seeks to enhance information flow and to improve the information environment. Fifth, soli is small in magnitude and is normally put in a white envelope.
Au contraire, tapoli is typically paid by a “big man,” or criminal who seeks to make up or kill a story. The story could involve the fabrication of negative news about a political opponent, masking a fraud, a corrupt business/ political practice, or covering up a criminal act. It follows that the main rational for tapoli payments is to influence the content of the story. By their very nature, tapoli involves covert operations, as such an open to all payment will undermine the operation. Thus, tapoli is not paid to all journalists. Given the sophistry required to execute the fabrication or killing of a story, only seasoned journalists are tapped for such missions. Thus, tapoli is a contingent payment and is per se illegal. Clearly, tapoli seeks to poison the information well by providing false information or suppressing truthful information. Tapoli tends to be large in magnitude and is put in a brown envelope.
The current emphasis on soli is misplaced and can lead to policies that reduce information flow, which can worsen the media landscape. The proper emphasis should be put on identifying, prosecuting, punishing and eliminating tapoli payments to journalists. Focusing on soli, rather than tapoli, trivializes the real problem in our media landscape.
Columnist: Asare, Kwaku S.