What has been revealed in the forensic examination of state broadcaster, NCN will raise again the question of what the APNU+AFC government and the respective boards are doing in relation to the published reports on the series of audits which were commissioned last year and which have revealed a host of wrongdoings, transgressions and poor practices.
A number of serious problems were evident in the NCN audit. The most grievous of these was the revelation that NCN had not billed the then ruling PPP/C for millions in advertising and there was no sign of any intent to have the party, distinct from the government, make good on the payments. These debts go back to 2008 and large sums were subsequently outstanding for the 2011 and 2015 general elections campaigns. The debts straddle both the Jagdeo and Ramotar administrations.
These debts and the intent not to collect them constitute further evidence of the now well-established, naked abuse of power by the PPP/C while it was in office for over two decades. Which board of NCN or any other entity sized up by the PPP/C could resist the demands of the then ruling party without directors having to tender resignations and be forever worried about job security. The PPP/C – buoyed by the accoutrements of executive power – wouldn’t take no for an answer. Surely the racking up of millions in debt at NCN could not have been done at the level of an advertising clerk and the marketing department of NCN. It had to have been procured and covered up at much higher levels. Now that it has been uncovered, the minutiae of the transactions that underpinned the debt must be painstakingly examined and the culpable persons in both the PPP/C and NCN must be pursued for full payment of the outstanding sums. This latest revelation demonstrates how difficult it is to take the current plaintive cries by the PPP/C about poor governance seriously and as anything but the grossest hypocrisy. Both Messrs Jagdeo and Ramotar should answer to these findings and if they profess not to know about the debt they should seek to find out about it.
As in the case with the findings of the audits of the National Insurance Scheme and the National Frequency Management Unit, the revelations from the NCN examination exemplify how entities which should be run like businesses are flagrantly undermined and in some cases left heavily indebted and requiring subventions from the same government that caused the problem. How could NCN thrive with such a large outstanding debt?
It makes it all the more imperative that new boards be insulated from any hint of government interference or direction. How is this to be done when the current APNU+AFC administration seems determined to insert cronies and other persons of uncertain antecedents into board positions? Nevertheless, the boards have to rise to the challenge and demonstrate to the public that their business is transparent and beyond reproach. Which is why it is shocking that the Chairman of the NCN board, Mr Bish Panday on Friday refused to speak to the question of a possible conflict interest on the board in relation to a debt write-off for Merundoi, describing it as purely a matter for NCN and the debtor. It is exactly this type of arrogance and opacity which has landed NCN in its current predicament. The issue of a write-off by the state broadcaster and whether it created a conflict of interest for a current director are eminently matters which the tax paying public should be privy to. Many of the people, if not a majority, who voted last year did so with the expectation that there would be a shift in political culture and far greater accountability and transparency. Mr Panday’s response is not encouraging.
In its details, the audit also reveals how public servants are influenced to take decisions that are detrimental to their employer and which make a mockery of their professionalism; whether it be engineering a large debt write-off or turning a blind eye to rising debt. In the case of NCN, the audit report found a typical example of this type of deceptive behaviour – there had been a blatant attempt to pass off some of the PPP/C advertisements as public service announcements.
Further exposed in the NCN audit findings was what the opposition parties had argued for many years. There was no level playing field at NCN in relation to advertisements and political programming. When the time drew close to general elections, the PPP/C through its various agents commandeered advertisement and airtime to the disadvantage of other contestants. This is the type of conduct that underlines public concerns about the state media being enlisted to campaign on behalf of the incumbent. Having been a victim of this, one expects that the APNU+AFC government will make certain that its constituents do not set about to marshal the state media for their own purposes. One also expects that the board of NCN and its management will lay down a transparent framework for handling political advertisements and programming.
The audit findings also expose how select companies like the Impressions advertising agency was able to avoid being responsible for a large debt run up on behalf of the PPP/C and with the feeblest attempts to collect. This was the manner in which PPP/C governments favoured certain companies creating an uneven playing field and creating distortions in the market. The former CEO of NCN should be made to explain why vigorous efforts were not made to collect this debt.
It is also worth noting that former President Ramotar did nothing for nearly three years about a 2012 investigation into financial irregularities at NCN which had pointed fingers at several senior personnel who were known to be close to the ruling PPP/C. Taken in conjunction with the PPP/C’s large outstanding debt to NCN, the burying of the 2012 report by the Ramotar administration is a further example of interests of the then ruling party trumping national concerns.