Groundviews

Investigations politicised and turned into merry-go-rounds

Photo courtesy LankaPage

“The Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIFAC), has summoned former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for questioning today.” Reported Daily FT (15 October).

Almost 03 weeks ago on September 23 too an investigating team visited Rajapaksa’s residence and recorded a statement on a petition the PRECIFAC had received, alleging that ITN had sustained a loss of Rs. 200 million because of non-payment of outstanding dues by former president Rajapaksa for telecasts of his presidential election campaign advertisements.

However big or small the person, however large or small the sum, any allegation of misappropriation, fraud or corruption should be investigated into and investigated independently and without bias. That was expected of this government and that was one of the big reasons for the ouster of President Rajapaksa at the 2015 January presidential polls. What is now happening around most investigations is not that. Some cases are hyped up in the media, with numerous personalities making very strong promises on justice and punishment while also leaving scathing remarks on personalities of the former regime and then the whole episode is allowed to fade off, with another given similar or more hype. With over 10 months of “Yahapalanaya” in hybrid form, there is now a waning hue and cry for investigations that in any case was not for proper, methodical investigation through channels that are relevant. Instead new units were hurriedly created with oversized publicity and fanfare, with everything thrown at the FCID or PRECIFAC. This ITN case on default of payment is a classic case of how these issues are politicised and may go into oblivion, after they are made impertinent through media.

It is common knowledge that any company, be it State or private, first deals with cases of payment default by any of its clients on its own. The company uses its legal resources to demand payment and then lay down timelines for final and complete payment by the defaulting client. Thus in the case of advertising in the media, whether print or electronic, there is always a registered “Agency” which handles media buying for commercials. They earn a legal commission of 15% on the value of the advertisements generated. In all major media companies including State owned corporations, there is a “commercial department” that handles advertising. They often go into contracts with clients that are advertising agencies, to carry commercials for long periods and as main sponsors of programmes. This is usually based on a contract the advertising agency has with its “customer” the company. Therefore customers of advertising agencies have no responsibility towards media companies the advertising agencies work with.

This we know is the normal routine which at times changes during election periods. The legality of the content of commercials becomes more important and agreements seek bigger or profitable packages. What does not change is the status of the “client”. Advertising agencies that do media buying for a political party or a candidate remain the client of media companies. Politicians or political parties and candidates remain as customers of the advertising agency. Therefore any issue with payment of advertising cost to the media company, in this case to the ITN, remains the responsibility of the advertising agency that handled advertising for Rajapaksa’s election campaign at the last presidential polls.

This issue of 200 million rupee loss to ITN on election advertising of which some media reports said former President Rajapaksa owes 102 million rupees, is one of “recovery”. In all cases of recovery, it is the “commercial department” of ITN that should initiate correspondence with the advertising agency that handled media buying for the commercials. ITN thus had two options to choose from. One, is to have their legal department send a “letter of demand” to the advertising agency. Two, if the ITN feels sending a “letter of demand” will not serve the purpose, to lodge a complaint with the Fraud Bureau.

When that does not happen with the ITN management, it becomes the responsibility of the Minister, in this instance the Minister for Media Gayantha Karunathilake under whom the ITN is, to intervene and have the ITN management attend to it. In fact the minister can order his Chairman or the Executive Director of ITN to start working on that recovery as a priority. If they don’t adequately deal with it, then it’s a question of discipline.

Yet, that has not been how recovery of 200 million rupees for election advertising is being handled in this particular case. Why has it not been that way ? Why is there no advertising agency mentioned in this case? Why is no contract or agreement the ITN may have entered into talked about?

My layman’s understanding is, the available legal provisions that are usually made use of in recovering debt in most other cases have been purposely ignored in this case. They have not been tried and exhausted. It is thus quite evident the intention is not of recovering the money highlighted as 200 million rupees, but to gain political advantage from the case. Political advantage in the urban society that wants fraud and corruption investigated. This government perhaps believes they earn more public applause in having former President Rajapaksa being investigated by a Presidential Commission of inquiry than by initiating a recovery of 200 million rupees from an advertising agency.

That is also the case with media. This media culture is hungry for sensational and speculative pieces. Perception in media is, the public wants only such news. They therefore prefer news they can “develop” into tasty fillings for their pages and programmes. Rajapaksa called for questioning by PRECIFAC is more “hot” news than ITN Chairman sending out a letter to some advertising agency asking for payment.

That’s what most investigations are geared for. I would bet this type of investigations would not bring any result at the end. I believe Rajapaksa is no “dumb” politician to have his signature on any of those advertising contracts or deals with any media company or any advertising agency. That I believe is known to those who investigate the case as well. BUT, the questioning can be dragged for some time in gaining publicity. The media would hang around corridors to get a “voice cut”. The AG’s department can thereafter tell the investigators there is no clear evidence to file a Court case, which could always be true.

This seems the pattern that is adopted and those who demand investigations are also happy as long as “investigations” are seen to be continuing. With former bosses seen and quoted in media about their inquiry. Well the whole act of investigating fraud and corruption under this “Yahapalanaya” is one that would provide a merry-go-round for happy voters who believe their “vote” is given due worth, but end up in a “win – win” situation for all; for the government leaders, for the ousted former leaders and for “cheer” leaders too. But certainly not for the public and society.