When the delegation of Katsina State Governor Aminu Masari sauntered into the Hausa section of the Voice of America (VOA) in Washington DC in January 9, 2018, none of the over 15 staff he met had a premonition that the governor’s visit was pregnant with so much trouble that may lead to their unceremonious sack.
The interview was conducted and the governor’s entourage was taken round the expansive office of the America’s foreign broadcasting agency.
As the governor entered his car, one of the Katsina State senior officials on the entourage handed down “a brown envelope” containing $5000 to one of the VOA staff that walked them their car.
Governor Masari’s spokesperson Mr Abdu Labaran, however, denied that his principal had given any money to the VOA staff during the visit.
But multiple sources told, Daily Trust on Sunday that the ‘North-West governor’ referred to by the VOA was the Katsina governor.
The governor’s “gift” was subsequently shared to all the Hausa Service staff on duty at that time. And everyone went back to work. Some of the beneficiaries of the gift include Sahabu Imam Aliyu, Jummai Ali, Ladan Ayawa, Ibrahim Jarmai, Abdoulaziz Adili Toro, Ibrahim Alfa Ahmed, among others.
There was no any sign of trouble over the governor’s ‘gift’ until when the head of the Hausa Service who was on leave in Nigeria at that time returned and decided to be a whistleblower.
Mr Leo Ken wrote a petition to the VOA management over the governor’s “improper payment” to his colleagues.
The federal law in the United States prohibit VOA journalists from taking any money in excess of $20 in their line of duty.
An investigation was subsequently launched over the “gift.” On October 2, the VOA announced that it has fired or proposed to terminate 15 staff of its Hausa language service following an investigation that found the individuals had accepted improper payments from a foreign official in West Africa.
Director of VOA, Amanda Bennett, informed the American-funded radio station staff of the move in an agency-wide email.
“It is therefore with a very heavy heart that I must tell you that we have terminated or (in accordance with all applicable Federal laws and regulations) proposed to terminate 15 members of the Hausa Service,” she wrote.
The director said the action was taken after simultaneous investigations by VOA staff and the Office of the Inspector General into “allegations of improper conduct by members of the service, which involved accepting improper payments from an official in the coverage area.”
The Hausa service of the VOA reaches some 20 million people weekly, principally in Nigeria but also in Niger, Ghana, Chad and Cameroon.
The 15 staff involved, including Mr Ken (who is not suspected on personally accepting a payment), were met at the front door of VOA headquarters on a fortnight ago, and they were stripped of their building passes and handed letters notifying them of the action.
Reports said the investigation produced no evidence that any programming was affected by the alleged payments.
Mr Ken, according to Daily Trust on Sunday findings, got into trouble for allegedly getting involved into “sundry illegal financial activities.”
Some of his “offenses” include padding of the rent fee of the Abuja office, illegal deductions of salaries of part-time staff, payments of ghost stringers, among others.
It was learnt further that investigators from the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) were in Nigeria to unravel the padding of the office rent. They also spoke to so many part -time staff who were engaged by Mr Ken and forced them to send him some huge part of their monthly pay.
Some of the staff were even flown to the Washington DC by VOA to testify before investigators over the matter. Another source told Daily Trust on Sunday that in the past, some VOA journalists were fired for “using office telephones for personal calls.”
Bennett, however, said in her email that “a separate investigation has been launched to determine if any coverage by VOA was improperly influenced. If any such influence is discovered, we will deal with it promptly and transparently.”
She added that, “If any other instances of improper payments are discovered in any service anywhere in VOA, we are committed to investigating them thoroughly and dealing with them promptly as well.”
‘Receiving ‘gifts’ from news makers not allowed’
The Africa Division director Negussie Mengesha said VOA staffers “clearly understand that that is not allowed.”
With this development, the service is left with only 11 permanent government employees and contractors to produce 16 hours of radio and 30 minutes of television every week. The African director said the agency intends to maintain its current programming schedule with the help of an extensive network of part-time contributors in Africa. The VOA announced that a former Hausa Service chief, Fred Cooper, will return to run the service until a permanent chief is selected.
The terminated employees will be replaced quickly and that the new staff will receive rigorous training in journalism ethics, Mengesha said.
It was clear that some of the employees cannot be replaced under federal regulations until a lengthy termination process is completed.
Bennett said “every person in this building knows the federal laws and the standards of ethical journalism. People will see [from Tuesday’s firings] that we take these things very very seriously. Everyone will see what we expect of them.”
Brown envelope syndrome
The act of collecting money from government officials or private individuals in Nigeria during news coverage is very common even though it is not legal.
Sources familiar with the issue said that almost all “government officials from Nigeria that visit VOA drop some money after the encounter. That is the tradition. That doesn’t mean that it was solicited by the journalists. The fact is: officials give the money, and the journalist collect it,” the source who declined being named.