By D Kaihenneh Sengbeh |
GETTING THERE: I didn’t really want to go. Just flying from Liberia way to South Africa for a three-day workshop, to me, wasn’t impactful. I was reminded of the hurdles associated with such long travels. I’ve been on the road many times. I know it all: the long waits, flight delays, abrupt changes in schedules, poor weather conditions, and those heavy flight engine sounds. Frightening. It’s tiring!
“You are the Communication Manager. You suppose to go and come back and share the knowledge with your staff,” my boss stated. “The LRA, too, must benefit,” maintained the former Commissioner General of the Liberia Revenue Authority Elfrieda Stewart Tamba. I had no choice.
Fast-forward, that’s how I joined three vetted Liberian journalists to Johannesburg, South Africa, for the first-ever Media Engagement organized by the African Tax Administration Forum (ATAF) in March 2018. A second media engagement and training was held in Kigali, Rwanda, in March this year. I am very convinced that all of us who have attended either or both of these two media engagements and training under the sponsorships of ATAF have some short story to share.
EXPERIENCING IT: Personally, it was rewarding being in South Africa, other than what I had thought when the invite first came. No, it is not because it was my first time being in Sandton, Johannesburg. Rather, it was the opportunity the trip provided me to meet, discuss and intermingle with my peer tax communicators and journalists from other parts of the continent. It was a prospect to build a lasting network of professional friendship and also learn something different from my new friends and network.
Tellingly, the occasion made me understand how we of the same professions, but from dissimilar tax jurisdictions, worked differently to achieve the same results. It wasn’t just also about meeting friends and building partnerships, but the training helped me to get a broader understanding of the complexity of taxation and how to effectively communicate technical tax information in simpler form so that the lay man selling down town in the streets can understand. Profit shifting, base erosion, transfer pricing and digital economy, are among few of the trending terminologies in current tax conversations that tax communicators and journalists should better understand if they can properly discuss the issue, write a better press release or file a good story for the news. The engagements were good; my initial thought was not correct.
Certainly, such was the main reason — the crosspollination of these ideas and acquisition of new knowledge to enhance our individual and collective outputs in the tax conversations — that ATAF coughed the resources to gather approximately 150 journalists and tax communicators from over 40 countries during the last two years. No other name than “Media Engagement and Training” would have best suited these meetings.
THE TESTIMONIES: At these engagements and training in Johannesburg and Kigali, participants have learnt from experts on the continent about taxation and challenges faced by revenue authorities in meeting their annual targets. The need for unremitting and methodical tax awareness/education on the continent, the necessity for governments to increase public sector investments and provide tax incentives, and how revenue authorities can break new grounds to expand the tax net with keen attention on the digital economy, have all featured in these discussions.
Listening to what some participants have said will only point to the fact that these engagements haven’t been wasteful in any way. Knowledge have been acquired to enable the media positively contribute to the continent’s tax conversation.
Giving his impression about the impact of the media engagements, Henry B. Mchazime, Media Specialist at the Malawi Revenue Authority says: “Through the media engagements, ATAF has widened opportunities to both the media and tax administrations on the continent to share more details regarding taxation, processes involved and overall, its uses.” He doesn’t stop there: “The engagement meetings [have provided] professional training to journalists pursuing taxation stories and communication personnel from tax administrations on how best to present tax stories and information to the general public with simplicity and timely feedback that has adequate content.”
Prosper Ndlovu is the Business Editor of the The Chronicle Newspaper of Zimbabwe. He attended the first engagement in South Africa and has been very active in the WhatsApp chat room of the participants. In the room, participants share tax stories and even get the views of others in their articles. Prosper states that public perception on taxation is negative in Africa because of disconnect between revenue generation and national development. “The media, working with tax administrators in the continent, can play a game changing role…through mass communication capacity by helping expose graft, educating the taxpayers and fostering accountability,” he asserts.
“ATAF’s engagement with both the global and African media has been deliberate, focused and succinct thereby putting the African tax matters as the heartbeat of raising the standards of living on the entire continent,” notes Tuangana Ndoro, Zimbabwe Revenue Authority’s Chief of Communication/Former Zimbabwe ATAF Country Correspondent.
Makuena Linake, who works as a Journalist at the Lesotho News Agency in Lesotho has learnt from the engagement that the “digital economy which is on the rise as we speak has opened up tax avoidance opportunities which are depriving governments of much-needed cash, because cross border transactions [in the digital space] are virtually tax free.” Makuena notes that poor legislation and weak administrations are hampering tax collection in developing countries. Factors of trade mispricing lead to falsification of price, quality, value of goods to tax avoidance.
WHY THE MEDIA? No doubt, ATAF has made no mistakes in the last two years bringing together media practitioners from across the continent to learn and communicate tax matters. The reason is that the role of the media cannot be overemphasized in any society, especially in the areas of public information and awareness and education on issues that affect the lives and general wellbeing of the population. Nobody needs to come from Jupiter to emphasize how issues of taxation affect the lives of any population and the survivability of the state, and the African continent in general.
As a media practitioner myself, I need not say how much the Media set and, or help to set national agenda, sway, sustain and dissuade public opinions, policies and decisions. The media has the power to lead and stimulate national debates and provide the platform or serves as a bridge for the exchange of ideas between the governed and government. Therefore, if this very media which has so much power and influence on society is knowledgeable about tax matters, they are able to communicate complex tax matters in the simplest of forms to enhance tax compliance and revenue growth. When revenues grow, good governments have more spending powers to effect development and improve the lives of the people.
At the two media engagements, participants – drawn from both public and private media – have delved into conversations around how media can unpack the significance of tax issues, and how simplifying these matters can allow citizens to better understand their obligations and their contribution to development in their countries as well as their role in holding states accountable. They have also identified ways through which tax authorities can work with the media in making citizens more active in terms of holding states accountable.
This is why Mary BAINE, Director of Tax Programs at ATAF could say in Kigali: “The era of digitalization is upon us, and we can no longer ignore the fact that Africa’s much-needed tax base is being eroded simply through unrecorded revenue. Our continent, now more than ever, needs all the resources if it is to promote its socio-economic growth and the wellbeing of its populations. We see the media as partners in our journey to advance the discourse on tax and development.”
AFTERMATH OF THE ENGAGEMENTS: At the close of the second media engagement and training in Kigali in March the 70 participants from 22 countries including Liberia resolved to establish the African Tax Media Network (ATMeN) to serve as a voice for telling the African Tax Story just as ATAF has over the last ten years been championing tax matters on the continent.
Eleven participants, including this writer, were unanimously endorsed to finalize the formation of the network for endorsement by heads of revenue authorities in Africa during the 10th Anniversary celebration of ATAF in November 2019. ATMeN seeks to establish a strong collaboration between tax reporters and revenue administrations to enhance tax education and awareness in supporting domestic resource mobilization among others.
The formation of the network buttresses efforts led by ATAF to initiate concrete steps in developing a smooth relationship between the media and various tax administrations on the African continent. Through this network, participants committed to sharing experiences, developing story ideas, promoting access to information at multiple levels and identifying opportunities for capacity development. They reiterated the importance of the network, because it would help them contextualize the story of tax by providing concrete policies, communicating service delivery and highlighting actions. More importantly, they noted that it would go beyond reporting scandals by highlighting solutions and best practices.
Like ATAF does with revenue administrations, ATMeN will be the right platform for media to create, access, curate and share knowledge that, subsequently, enables citizens to understand the impact of their taxes on their development. Participants appreciated the strong commitment by all stakeholders to creating an enabling and an inclusive environment in the spirit of Africa’s development ambitions.
The Kigali gathering stated that, through telling the tax story from the African perspective, they are reaffirming their commitment and contribution to shaping and setting the Africa tax agenda at national, regional and global level, for the benefit of the continent and its people.
Seemingly delighted about the establishment of the ATMeN, the Director of Tax Program at ATAF Mary Baine urged media practitioners to remain committed in highlighting tax matters as a means of ensuring that the public is adequately informed and educated on the underlining issues of taxation.
Rwanda Revenue Authority Commissioner of Domestic Taxes, Aimable Kayigi Habiyambere would note that ‘the role of the media is fundamental in taxation and as such the media should not be left behind in the process of tax information and education’.
Indeed, ATAF is grooming the media to effectively report and tell the African tax story from the African perspective. Jerry Laynumah Siakor, Public and Social Media Affairs Officer at the Liberia Revenue Authority, summarizes it all: “ATAF is the melting pot of taxation on the African continent and continue to demonstrate its vibrancy by formulating vital programs and leading tangible efforts in seeking the holistic transformation of the tax sector. Linking up African tax journalists and tax communicators through the establishment of the African Tax Media Network (ATMeN) indicates a millstone achievement in supporting tax education and domestic resource mobilization in Africa. As one of the…participants of the 2nd ATAF Media Engagement and Training held in Kigali, Rwanda in 2019, I am truly hopeful that as ATAF celebrates its 10th Anniversary this year, the organization will continue to lead the way for Africa to grow its taxes for the benefit of its people.”
THE LAST WORDS: Fiona Musana Marwa, an Independent Strategic and Development Communication Consultant/Lecturer in Development Communication at the University of Witwatersrand has been the chief facilitator during the two media engagements. Fiona is of the conviction that her efforts in working with ATAF to help the media tell the African tax story isn’t wasted. She can laugh last that she has been a solid part of ATMeN’s history.
“Working with such an inspiring and diverse set of media from across Africa was priceless,” she says. Fiona notes that it was a great opportunity to provoke courageous conversations and to encourage talented journalists to highlight the benefits of domestic resource mobilization. “Together, we have been able to shape the agenda on tax matters in Africa. Over the past two years we have also been able to build a community of practice where we share ideas on possibilities, opportunities and challenges.”
When tax administrators gather in Kampala, Uganda to celebrate the 10th Anniversary of ATAF (Nov 19 this year), a new body that will champion the telling of the continent’s tax story will be birthed. Of course, it’s ATMeN!
The Author, D. Kaihenneh Sengbeh is Manager for Communications, Media and Public Affairs at the Liberia Revenue Authority and Member of the African Tax Media Network. He’s former Secretary General of the Press Union of Liberia and practiced mainstream journalism for almost 15 years. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com +231886586531/+231777586531