The Independent Media Commission has on the 12th September, 2022 gave its ruling on the Complaint from Alpha Ibrahim Sesay against Standard Times Newspaper in connection with the newspaper’s articles published on various dates:

  1. Monday 6th September 2021 article titled: “DONOR FUND US $ 1.2M KICKBACKS”;
  3. Tuesday 14th September 2021 article titled: “BIO PROBES 1.2M PROCUREMENT FRAUD”;
  4. Monday 20th September 2021 articles titled: “BANK GOVERNOR IN CONSPIRACY …1.2 MILLION PROCUREMENT FRAUD”;
  5. Tuesday 28th September 2021 article titled: “WORLD BANK ENDORSES PROCUREMENT FRAUD…OVER BANK SWITCH CONTRACT”; and
  6. Monday 11th October 2021 article titled: “BIG FRAUD PROBE AWAITS ACC…WORLD BANK DUPED”.

Eight hearings were held on the said matters between the complainants and the respondent’s newspaper. The complainant Alpha Sesay was represented by Macauley, Bangura & Co Solicitors while the respondent Standard Times newspaper was represented by the Managing Director and Publisher Philip Neville.

During deliberations the Complaints Committee noted that, Standard Times Newspaper relied on the Audit Report 2020, as its main defense, but failed to take into cognisance the final recommendations of the Audit Report. The Newspaper only took into cognisance the first part of the Audit Report. However, the overall recommendation stated that the process was satisfactory. The Committee noted that the Standard Times publications were inaccurate.

Standard Times Newspaper believed that the US$ 600,000 variance in the contract price and BPC’s bid price and that of US$ 1,200,000 in the evaluation prices, ‘were stolen’ by unidentified persons. The Committee found out that the overall conclusion of the Audit Report as evidenced in paragraph 1.3 of page 3, was that the controls in place at the Project Management Unit were satisfactory and that the project team had put in place measures that would instill probity and accountability in the use of project resources. The procurement process of the switch also complied with The World Bank procedures and practices.

During the hearing the Commission discovered that Standard Times did not make reasonable effort to cross-check the story with the Complainant, despite their claim that they did not publish anything that they did not cross-check. The Reporter claimed that he went to cross-check the story with the complainant at the Ministry of Finance at George Street, but the Commission noted that the Complainant does not work at the Ministry of Finance and that his office is located at Howe Street in Freetown.

The publications by Standard Times were influenced by the concerns of the newspaper about perceived flaws and the lack of transparency in the procurement process for the installation of the national switch, and the fact that the National Public Procurement Authority (NPPA) on two accessions queried and ordered the Project Fiduciary Management Unit (PFMU) to put on hold the award of the contract to the successful bidder.

Also, the Commission discovered during the hearing that Standard Times publication relied mainly on hearsay on the alleged taking of kickbacks, as evidenced in Philip Neville’s admittance to the Committee that he got the information from a third party and had no material evidence to confirm that any kickback was paid to anyone, as alleged in the publication. The Newspaper was determined to draw the attention of the public and Anti-Corruption Commission to the issues in their publication, as the amount involved was a loan to be refunded and not a grant, but breached the accuracy provision of the Media Code of Practice in the process.

The Commission at its meeting held on Wednesday 31st August, 2022 resolved that:

  1. a fine of NLe1,000.00 (One Thousand New Leones)/Le1,000,000.00 (One Million [old] Leones) be levied on Standard Times Newspaper for each of the six inaccurate publications, totaling NLe 8,000.00 (Eight Thousand New Leones)/ Le8,000,000.00 (Eight Million [old] Leones) in line with Principle 3 of the Media Code of Practice dealing with accuracy.
  2. That the Standard Times Newspaper publishes one retraction of all the inaccurate publications on the front pages of six of its newspaper for each of the six inaccurate publications, with equal prominence, effective the first issue after receipt of this ruling.

# Source: Khalil Kallon, Executive Secretary, IMC