For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Right of Reply
The article under the headline ‘FMM Hides 40 Million Fraud – Former convenor misleads the members’ by Frederica Jansz in the Sunday Leader of 3 June is a vituperative piece of writing filled with lies, half truths and malicious manipulation of facts, passed off as a journalistic endeavour. The writer has spoken about ethics codes being formulated anew by media organizations all over the world, including Sri Lanka, but has conveniently chosen to ignore them in her malicious attempt to project lies and half-truths as facts and malign the reputation of an individual.
Facts, as the writer should well know, are sacred. Unfortunately, it is an element largely missing in the article, which manipulatively and with extreme malice tries to establish a fallacy that there had been a Rs 40 million fraud and that the Free Media Movement (FMM) has been attempting to cover it up. Facts are also missing in the writer’s sorry excuse of an attempt to report on what transpired at the 29 May AGM of the FMM and the events pertaining to former FMM member Lucian Rajakurnanayke being removed from the FMM membership. What the article contains instead is concoctions and fabrications, and devious exploitations of half-truths that are not just bad journalism but also unscrupulous use of print space for questionable intent.
The article claims:
“The Free Media Movement priding itself on being a non-partisan independent group of journalists, newspaper editors and media personalities who are committed to freedom of expression, opinion and information stand guilty of hiding a forty million rupee fraud…….
For reasons best known to them the funders never bothered to find out whether the FMM had a management structure to manage these monies.
The man behind this transformation of the FMM from purely a voluntary organization to an NGO was one of its most senior and high profile members – Sunanda Deshapriya under whose management at the time the 40 million rupees went missing.”
The Rs 40 million, projected as having been defrauded, was the total amount received by the FMM in 2007, 2008, 2009 from several sources to implement five projects including Human Rights Award, Safety Training, Public Service Journalism Award, Safety Fund, as well as the running of the FMM office. There is documentation to prove that a major part of the 40 million rupees had in fact been used to implement these projects. In particular, an independent audit was carried out by International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on the moneys spent on the Human Rights Award project.
While there have been no allegations of 40 million rupees being misappropriated, internal queries had been raised about some expenses relating to the projects. These were investigated and accounts were audited and presented at the 2008 Annual General Meeting (AGM). However, the audit report was not fully accepted by the members, as the report did not contain the auditor’s comment on the expenses. The Executive Committee was asked to present another report including the comments of the auditors, at a Special General Meeting (SGM) to be called within a period of six months. Unfortunately, this was not done.
Subsequently, an Interim Committee that was set up to look into the allegations of fraud (with Chulawansa Sri Lal as Convenor) took up the issues raised at the AGM and appointed a three-member committee comprising S. G. Punchihewa, Dushantha Samarasinghe and Daya Lankapura to look into them. The committee recommended that the existing accounts should be audited and investigated. Accordingly retired chief accountant N.J. K.K. Seneviratne was appointed to undertake this task. He audited the existing accounts and presented a report which confirmed that there had not been a Rs. 40 million fraud, but that there was lack of clarity and mismanagement of some of the funds, owing to the fact that there were no receipts or bills to support some of the expenses.
“At last year’s Annual General Meeting on May 23, the FMM decided that it will close all further action into the 40 million rupees unaccounted for in the financial years 2008 and 2009.
It was also decided that the Executive Committee of the FMM within one month of the AGM must issue a press release stating the following:
• The amount of money unaccounted for;
• The recommendations of the Punchihewa Committee on the financial fraud that has taken place;
• And explaining why the FMM could not proceed further on the recommendations made by the Punchihewa Committee of the matter.
Not only that. Those present at the AGM agreed on a basic draft of the press release and mandated founder member C. J. Amaratunga to write the final press release and sent it to the executive committee at its next meeting a week later. Amaratunga did so and the executive committee which was chaired by Sunil Jayasekera as Convenor, approved its release to the media.
Sunil Jayasekera took the responsibility to do that. The press release, however, was never issued. Sunil Jayasekera, Convenor of the FMM at the time, maintains that the reason this could not be done was because at the time his life was ‘Seriously under threat’ and the situation in the country against media personnel was ‘dangerous.’”
The AGM of 2011 did discuss the issue at length, especially about what the final decision should be. Despite the disagreement expresssed by several members, and at the insistence of members Waruna Karunatileke and Chulawansa Sri Lal, it was agreed that a press release would be issued detailing the decision to end the investigations and close the chapter on the whole issue. Member C. J. Amaratunge was tasked with the formulation of a draft of the press release, to be presented at the next Executive Committee meeting. But at no point was it specified that the press release should be issued within one month of the AGM. The minutes of the 2011 AGM confirm this.
The matter was however taken up at the first meeting of the new Executive Committee and the draft press release was produced and its contents discussed. But due to developments in the country that the Executive Committee felt were not conducive to media freedom, the press release was not issued. At no time did Sunil Jayasekera say the decision to hold back the release was due to his life being ‘seriously under threat’. The press release and its non issuance were discussed at subsequent committee meetings and committee members were aware of the matter.
“In fact the media statement was not released for months and it was only when members of the executive committee picked up enough courage to ask him why it was not done that Jayasekera came up with his excuse saying he would take personal responsibility for not carrying out the AGM decision.
The lack of democracy and open discussion within the FMM is clear by the fact that 11 other members of the executive committee took months before raising the issue.
It was further evident at the AGM when every one of them was silent while members questioned the non implementation of AGM decisions.”
The matter of the press release only came up at the 2012 AGM after a committee member came up with a related suggestion – following which, member Waruna Karunatilake asked the question about the press release that should have been issued as per the decision of the previous AGM. Jayasekera clarified the situation and took responsibility for the committee’s inaction and said he was prepared to step down from his position on the committee, but members unanimously vetoed the suggestion. However members Waruna Karunatilake, Chulawansa Sri Lal and Ranga Sri Lal insisted that the decision of the last AGM should be carried over and that a press release should be issued within a month of the 2012 AGM. The heated session was dominated by Karunatilake, who dismissed all other suggestions to resolve the matter in any other way.
“….the executive committee of the FMM of which Jayasekera was even then the Convenor made a series of proposals to the 2011 May 23 AGM to tighten financial controls of the organisation and those proposals were adopted by the AGM for immediate implementation.
Yet, no such controls have been put into place to date. Jayasekera asserts that the implementation of such methods never arose as the FMM has since then not received monies for any ‘major projects.’
This, members of the FMM say, is again an outright lie. According to accounts presented at the AGM, the FMM has received 120,000 rupees from the Safety Institute, an international NGO and 25,000 rupees from the Sri Lanka Press Institute. In any case, the new financial regulations put in place at the 2011 AGM were not tied to foreign funds. The regulations were to be implemented so that money currently available with the FMM is also not misappropriated.
Following the AGM, new allegations are now emerging that Sunil Jayasekera violated existing rules and spent money without the ‘prior’ approval of the executive committee.”
Waruna Karunatilake reminded the AGM that the appointment of a financial sub- committee to monitor funds had not been set up. Sunil Jayasekera argued that this measure had not been considered necessary as no new projects have been undertaken by the FMM. A sum of Rs.120, 000 and Rs. 25,000 had been received from two institutions, the latter amount from the Sri Lanka Press Institute, but these monies were only provided as reimbursements (following the submission of receipts and related documents) for expenses incurred by the FMM in August 2011 and January 2012, for advocacy activities in Jaffna and Colombo.
There have been no allegations whatsoever of Jayasekera violating existing rules or taking financial decisions without discussion and approval of the committee. In fact, according to the constitution, the convenor has no access to any funds of the FMM and can avail them only with the consent of the executive committee. This procedure has been adhered to as confirmed in the minutes of the meetings.
Other inaccuracies in the article: Lucian Rajakarunanayake was sacked from the FMM because he used his position with the FMM to raise funds for an activity that he implemented in his personal capacity, using the funds which were deposited in his personal account.
As with the sweeping statement that US 400,000 cannot be accounted for, the details relating to the Rajakarunanayke incidents are also incorrect and are based on half truths presented as facts.
There is documentary evidence to prove that a significant portion of the Rs. 40 million has been spent as it should. What cannot be clearly accounted for amounts to a total of Rs 1.3 million relating to expenses incurred in 2007 – 2008. Jayasekera did mention that it was not possible to take the investigation further because several individuals who need to be questioned in this regard are no longer in the country.
While admitting that there are some accounting issues with regard to certain expenses, and that all efforts are being made to ensure past mistakes are not repeated, the Executive Committee would like to emphasize that contributions of the committee members to the FMM are purely on a voluntary basis and in the interests of upholding and promoting media rights and freedoms. This is not the case with many journalists, including Frederica Jansz, who received a monthly sum of Euro 750 for three years to co-ordinate a safety project on behalf of INSI.
‘To thine own self be true’, reads a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. We urge the writer to examine her conduct before accusing the FMM of being guilty of ‘twisted logic and subtle manipulation of facts’, for in the final analysis, it is she who is guilty of unsubstantiated accusations leveled against the FMM.
Free Media Movement
7th June 2012