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Ethical crisis grips media men

By
VICTOR IVAN
 

The subject of media freedom and freedom of expression and transparency in governance are in the forefront of political debate in Sri Lanka today. We consider it proper for the enrichment of this debate to publish this opinion by Mr. Victor Ivan, Editor of Ravaya newspaper and a founder member of Free Media Movement which demonstrates the lack of transparency with regard to its affairs by an organization that is most vocal in demanding transparency in governance claiming to champion media freedom in the country. The piece on reported expenditures by Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya, a former convener of Free Media Movement and one who held a key position in Centre for Policy Alternative (CPA) with regard to media is reproduced from Lanka ENews.com as this shows the nature of expenditure incurred supposedly for the promotion of media freedom largely from funds received from foreign organizations.

Media is one of the principal conduits supplying information to the people. It is also the main source that exposes misdeeds happening in the country. All important and powerful persons in the country are criticised more or less in the media. Media is also the watchdog that scrutinises the three arms of the government - the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary.

People’s desire for information and the right of information is quite large. It is the journalists who speak most about the significance of providing people with true and undistorted information since facts are sacred.


Free Media Movement

They are vehemently against both distortion and suppression of information. They believe that nothing of importance to the public should be concealed. They oppose legislation such as those pertaining to state secrets which conceal information.

Journalists enjoy the right to criticise every important person and expose those that commit offences. They firmly oppose the curtailment of that right even by an iota.

There is no method that examines journalists who enjoy such wide power as socio-political watchdogs. Since both print and electronic media that comprise the platform that distributes information and exposes offenders are in their hands they (media and media personalities) have the ability to suppress criticism of media and media personalities.


Media ethics

Quite recently UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made a valuable criticism about the media ethics practised in Sri Lanka. When a journalist questioned him he questioned the journalist in response. Media organis ations considered it a threat to journalists and issued a statement condemning his conduct.

Though the UNP, on behalf of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe issued a statement in response to the statement of the media organisation it was either not published in the media or was published in a truncated and distorted form. Though Mr. Wickremesinghe made a public criticism of the media personalities and organisations based on this incident it was not adequately subjected to discussion. It is not clear whether there was actually no discussion or whether the media and media personalities did not allow such a discussion to take place.


CPA

Even in the dispute between Sunanda Deshapriya and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) state media published various stories. The CPA did not divulge what really happened. Neither did Sunanda Deshapriya make a clear statement on the issue. The CPA spoke in a confused language without giving any details. Sunanda also replied in a complex language sans details.

Though it appeared that something had taken place what had actually taken place was not clear.

Now an explosive situation has arisen within the Free Media Movement (FMM) and within the five media organisations linked with it. FMM is said to have appointed an internal investigation committee t o examine and report on a number of transactions made by it. Meanwhile the Working Committee of the FMM had met and decided to suspended investigations conducted by the Committee and decided to convene a General Meeting to elect new Office Bearers. At that meeting the importance of preventing information on the dispute being published in the media was discussed. Opinion was also expressed that media should be prevented from having access to facts concerning the dispute. Doesn’t it show that journalists themselves who hold facts sacred want to conceal information from the public? Doesn’t it show that journalists themselves who oppose legislation safeguarding state secrets and have secrets to safeguard?

Several persons connected with the FMM requested me individually to intervene in my capacity as a founder member of the FMM to settle the dispute hat as arisen. I told every one of them that I could not do so as I have already resigned from the FMM.I also told them it was not a good policy to conceal serious offences, if they had taken place within the organisation.


Limelight

The majority opinion of those who spoke with me, however, was that issues that have arisen should be settled internally and in confidence, without allowing them to appear in the limelight. I concluded that not only bad journalists but also good journalists do not want their misconduct or failings to be known to the public and that they are not ready to apply to themselves the policy they pursue in relation to offences or failings of everyone else.

Now the storm has blown across the Sri Lankan media and the fantasy land of the media personnel. For some time there were embers hidden beneath the ash that could spark off a big fire. The fire sparked albeit on a small scale from the CPA. Though he fire there has been doused it has emerged elsewhere. The investigation by t he CPA was against one person. Thereafter, the FMM as well as the Press Institute have initiated investigations against several activists of media organisations.

I am also a founder member of the FMM. But I had differences of opinion at the formative stage of the FMM. They were about its constitution. The constitution was not structured to allow any professional journalist to become a member. It was structured to allow only a select few to obtain membership.

I warned that the resulting movement would be not a common organisation of journalists but a movement of a certain clique or faction. A policy that would open the door to everyone would pave the way for an organised group to capture power, they argued. Since I did no agree with this reasoning I kept away from the organisation for a long time. When the Chandrika Government unleashed heavy repression on the media Varuna and Sunanda asked me to rejoin forgetting differences of opinion in order to face media repression. Hence, I rejoined.

Then it had an agenda of its own. We spent our own money for its activities. The annual income of the FMM did not exceed even Rs. 10,000.Nor were there paid employees then. Then we also faced death threats. There were times when we faced bomb attacks and acid attacks. We faced all those ordeals from our own strength.

We did not have luxurious safe houses to hide. Nor was any mechanism to pay special allowances to those threatened. We had only one project. That was the project relating to media freedom. It was a movement that was propelled by our own strength and labour.

With the passage of time the nature of the movement also changed gradually. It was transformed from a self-supporting movement to one that ran on foreign funds. I am not against receiving foreign funds. But they should be proportionate to our real needs. We should not sell our right to fix the agenda to donor organisations.


Foreign projects

Yet the FMM became an organisation involved in foreign projects to such an extent that it found it difficult to extricate itself from their grip. If you are in dire need of money there is no harm in involving yourself in one or two projects that would not harm the organisations self respect. Instead, what happened was that the FMM had become an organisation enmeshed in so many projects without being able to implement a single of them correctly so that ultimately it forgot its own project.

I expressed my displeasure and bid good bye to the FMM again. My criticism was that the FMM had become an organisation that works on foreign funds according to a foreign agenda instead of one that speaks and acts on real issues. Some time after leaving FMM I tried to point out one trend I observed in a printed debate with Uvindu Kurukulasuriya.

There I pointed out that a class of media advocates has sprung up among the journalists and that they have become persons who decide the agenda of the journalists and that there is a large disparity between the incomes of these advocates and that of journalists. The information concealed regarding the present dispute shows how my prophecy then has been confirmed.

When Keith Noyar was abducted and assaulted inhumanly a journalist telephoned me and invited me to participate in a protest campaign. I told him that volunteers like me are not necessary since there is now an official institution and specially paid officials to act on behalf of victims.

When he questioned further I said that citizens volunteered to apprehend criminals when there was no Police to enforce law and order and once the Police are available the responsibility should be shouldered by the Police and not by the citizens.

According to information I have gathered from here and there are two officials receiving a monthly salary for the last four years to look after the safety of journalists.

They are paid by the international organization INSI. One is paid a monthly salary of 750 Euros. In 2007 the exchange value of One Euro was Rs. 160. Hence the Rupee value of the monthly pay of one was 120,000.

In addition their expenses for travelling, fuel, purchase of mobile phone, mobile phone bill, purchase of laptop computer, E-mail are also paid. Thus the total salary amounts to around Rs. 200,000 per month. This is not the sole income of these two officials. They have other sources of income too.


Secrecy

I am not against having two permanent paid officials to look after the safety of journalists. I am not against a foreign institution paying them a huge amount for fulfilling a huge task. What I question is the secrecy surrounding the issue. Even journalists are not aware that there are two officials to look after their security. Even media organisations are not privy to it. If journalists are aware they could go to them and request safety when needed.

Now we not only have paid officials for safety of journalists we also have a Safety Fund for journalists. This fund is under the trusteeship of the Press Institute. The extent of the fund is not clear. There is a subsidiary fund within that fund. It has been placed at the disposal of the FMM. It amounts to Rs. 8.2 million per year. You could guess the extent of the total fund from this figure.


Inquiry

Since the use of this subsidiary fund has been a problem the Press Institute has suspended the use of it and initiated an inquiry.

Unlike earlier, journalists under threat now could get compensation from this fund. It is said that the Fund pays Rs. 5000 each to five families of slain journalists. It is good. But the people who are said to be threatened get more than the slain.

Two houses have been rented for two journalists for their safety. The rent for one is Rs. 230. 000 while that for the other is Rs. 178,000.In addition those threatened are paid a monthly allowance of Rs. 10,000 to travel with safety. There are five persons obtaining this facility.


Training workshops

I have always had a criticism about training workshops for journalists. Though there are many active programs for this purpose majority of them are of poor quality. The Press Institute conducts good training programs for electronic media journalists. Yet their programs for print media journalists are of poor quality. The two-day workshop project by the FMM and similar organisations is nothing more than a deception.

Even for short-term training there should be a formal curriculum, qualified trainers and review procedures.

The five media organizations including the FMM conduct four big training projects on Public Service Journalism, Human Rights, Fraud and Corruption and on Security of Journalists. I do not know the total allocation for these projects. I have heard that the Human Rights project has a grant of 199,000 Euros from the European Union.


Projects

That is more than Rs. 15 million. Strangely it is the same persons who are employed as trainers in all four projects. It is the same trainers that act as Regional Coordinators. It is the same people who organise and judge essay competitions on topics related to these projects.

The payment for a trainer for a two-day workshop varies from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 38,400. A Regional Coordinator is paid a sum ranging from Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 30,000. One person is paid a sum between Rs. 15,000 and Rs. 20,000 for judging a contest.

Four journalists were paid Rs. 54,900,Rs. 103,000, Rs. 125,000 and Rs. 109,800 respectively for the month of November 2008 from this training project.

The first person was a journalist with a salary of Rs. 60,000 per month. In addition he drew Rs. 25,000 as a Regional Coordinator. Hence, his total monthly income was Rs. 139,000.

The second person was also a paid journalist with a salary between Rs. 40,000 and s. 50,000. He drew Rs. 20,000 as a Regional Coordinator. His house rent of Rs. 17,500 is paid from the Security Fund. He also draws the Safety travel allowance of Rs. 10,000 per month. If his salary is taken as Rs. 50,000 his monthly income amounts to Rs. 200,500.

The third person is also a journalist drawing a salary between Rs. 40,000-50,000. He has a safe house for which a rent of Rs. 19,000 is paid to him. His safety travel allowance is Rs. 10,000. If his salary is taken at Rs. 50,000 his monthly total income amounts to Rs. 204,400.

The fourth person receives an allowance of 750 Euros per month. If the exchange rate is taken at Rs. 155 for One Euro it amounts to Rs. 116,250. In addition he has drawn Rs. 6,650 for petrol, Rs. 10,900 for travelling, Rs. 12,930 for telephone facilities from the INSI Fund. Thus his total monthly income amounts to Rs. 326,530.
 


Fraudsters win in Free Media Movement

Sunanda Deshapriya who was caught red-hand in a financial fraud in Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) has taken measures to paralyze the investigation committee that is probing accounting of the Free Media Movement (FMM). Sunanda was the convener of FMM previously.

Sunanda’s financial conduct in FMM is also under surveillance after he had to leave the post he held in CPA since he was proved guilty for defrauding Rs. 200,000.

A committee comprised of Buddhika Weerasinghe, Kamal Liyanarachchi and C.J. Amarathunga was appointed unanimously to look into the FMM accounts. At the FMM committee that met on Tuesday, Sunanda agitated arguning that the accounts investigation committee was unconstitutional. He urged the general assembly should be called and new office bearers should be elected.

He accused the current office bearers for giving secret details of FMM to media, especially to Lanka-e-News.

Deshapriya personally debited Euro 750
A group led by Dr. Sunil Wijesiriwardhana objected that opinion and stated that it was a common practice that corruption charges being taken to media if the problem could not be solved internally. They pointed out that it was inevitable that this kind of matters being discussed in media since FMM is a media organization. They said that it was the transparent practice and asked to look into if the facts are correct and urged not look for who gave them to media.

The latest charge against Deshapriya is that he had personally debited Euro 750 (Rs. 125,000) a month to his account from an international organization called INSI for the work of the FMM. This payment has been taken place for four years and the international organization has also verified it. But the FMM committee members whom we talked were unaware of the payment. The group led by Dr. Wijesiriwardhana urged to summon a general assembly after a full audit is conducted. Eventually, both parties obtained equal votes and Sunanda voted for his own sake and paralyzed the accounts probe.

In the recent past, Sunanda Deshapriya personally arranged various paths to his loyalists to earn money and they voted in favor of Sunanda.

We herewith post a description of withdrawals of Sunanda Deshapriya and FMM Treasurer Kasun Yapa Karunarathna since last April. These data were submitted for the audit. In due circumstances, we will expose more data of suspicious transactions of media organization chiefs and other persons.

The Financial withdrawal chart of Sunanda Deshapriya
------------------------------------------------------------

23.04.08 -Rs. 16071.00 -Dialoge Roaming/INSI

13.05.08 -Rs. 1,276.00 -Internet/INSI

09.06.08 -Rs. 28,626.00 -Brussels/ INSI
17.06.08 -Rs. 15,480.00 -Safety phone/ INSI

02.07.08 -Rs. 10.000.00 -Translation FES report- FES
07.07.08 -Rs. 400.000.00 -TOT conferrnce advance payment/need to check whether IFJ refund or not
07.07.08 -Rs. 153,775.00 -Balance payment TOT Kandalama/need to check whether IFJ refund or not
25.07.08 -Rs. 13,200.00 -Transport/ office travel/INSI
25.07.08 -Rs. 15,090.00 -GFMD- refunded!!!!!
30.07.08 -Rs. 149,500.00 -Mission Pakistan- IFJ

18-08-08 -Rs. 5,100.00 -Fuel charges/INSI
19.08.08 -Rs. 8,792.00 -Phone bill/INSI
25-08-08 -Rs. 1,50,600.00 -Advance-Air ticket to Copenhagen

16,09.08 -Rs. 3600.00 -Inernet/INSI
16.09.08 -Rs. (No Details) -Sonny IC recorder purchersing/INSI
25.09.08 -Rs. 15,000.00 -Tell bill -August
25. 09.08 -Rs. 6243.00 -Insurance payment FMM savings/ IMS wlll refund
26.09.08 -Rs. 9,200.00 -Visa fee? FMM savings

07.11.08 -Rs. 1,500.00 -Travelling perdeum Matara workshop/ USAID
10.11.08 -Rs. 10,900.00 -Transport/INSI
18.11.08 -Rs. 12,930.00 -Mobill bill Sep/ October/ INSI
18.11.08 -Rs. 6,650.00 -Fuel /INSI
24.11.08 -Rs. 38,400.00 -Trainer fees Matara workshop/ Internews/ USAID
24.11.08 -Rs. 38,400.00 -Trainer fees Ampara/ USAID
24.11.08 -Rs. 31,500.00 -facilitator fees Kalutara workshop/ Internews/EU

The Financial withdrawal chart of FMM Treasurer Kasun Yapa Karunarathna (He is a member of the committee of the Working Journalists’ Association)
-----------------------------------------------------------------------

23.04.08 -Rs. 5,000.00 -PSJ Matara Trainer fees
09.10.08 -Rs. 80,000.00 -PSJ provincial Uva, Eastern & Sabaragamuva/(No bills)
10.10.08 -Rs. 1,12,000.00 -Provincial ceremonies/(No bills)
31.10.08 -Rs. 3,000.00 -Perdium Kalutara workshop/Internews/EU
 


Courtesy: Ravaya

Translated from Sinhala


 


 
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