By Sulochan Ramirah Mohan –
The Free Media Movement (FMM) which calls itself a ‘watchdog’ of media freedom in Sri Lanka and claims to be very ‘active’ in all areas relating to media freedom, defending the rights of journalists, calling for reform of repressive legislation, agitating against censorship and intimidation of media personnel and standing for broad principles of democratic and human rights –is yet to find the ‘culprit/s’ who mismanaged Rs 40 million of organiszation’s funds.
The Rs40 million fraud was highlighted in many newspapers and websites during that period but the media soon lost interest. FMM however decided to close all further action into Rs40 million unaccounted for financial year’s annual general meeting on May 23, it was reported last week. FMM also recently appointed new office bearers. LAKBIM NEWS spoke to the people involved.
‘I am ready to resign if others wish it’
FMM Secretary (and former convenor) Sunil Jayasekara of Iruresa claimed that the alleged misappropriation of FMM funds was a complete lie. “ A unanimous decision was taken at the 2011 AGM to bring to an end the investigations into the financial year 2008,” he said.
A newspaper reported 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 Jayasekara as convenor, approved the release to the media.
Sunil Jayasekara took the responsibility to do that. The press release, however was never issued. Sunil Jayasekara, convenor 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’.
Jayasekara however disputed this. ‘Nowhere have I said that the decision not to issue the press release was because of threat to my life. But I had said that FMM and other media groups had to face a challenging situation at the time and so it was decided that the press release should not be released and this was reported to the AGM.”
“The auditors did not question any of payments or expenses. Neither were contested or questioned by any member. There are 14 committee members and if even one of them has any reason to question me on any mater, I am ready to answer them or even resign from the position if required.”
Deshapriya not lone culprit
A former FMM convenor Uvindu Kurukulasuriya told LAKBIMA NEWS: “The constitution of the FMM has always been violated. It is gang of people not held accountable to the public. Even though it advocates transparency, accountability, good governance, right to information, etc, it has never practiced these things as an organization.
“ I had always actively supported FMM in the beginning (1993) but was not a member. I was invited to be one in 2003. When I became the FMM convenor in 2008, I wanted to implement its constitution and make it an ‘accountable organisation’. As a result of my investigations, I found that there was no proper financial accounting mechanism and that large scale fraud was taking place. For instance, Sunanda (Deshapriya) controlled everything without informing anyone at the meedings.”
“ FMM was a volunteer activist group until 2006 and then it became a NGO. Sunanda was paid 750 Euros monthly phone and reimbursed for transport, phone bills, etc. by International News Safety Institute from 2005. But he never declared these sums to FMM committee until I found out and questioned him at the executive committee meeting in November 2008.”
“ I also found that he had deposited millions of US dollars in his personal bank account (Standard Charted Bank NRFC account) –eg: money provided by the United State Institute of Peace to run a project call ‘Conflict Sensitive Reporting’ for Sri Lankan journalists during the peace process period.
“According to the documents, the project was to be run by five media organizations with International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). The money was transferred to IFJ and IFJ run the project with Sunanda’s personal bank account.”
“Sunanda and others had evn robbed money from an ant-corruption programme for journalists funded by USAID in 2008.”
“It’s not only FMM, but other journalists’ organizations like SLWJA (Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association) and FMETU (Federation of Media Employees Trade Union) are also corrupt.”
Uvindu however added that it was wrong to blame Sunanda alone. “Almost all senior FMM members are to be blamed. Victor Ivan of Ravaya should also be held responsible. I found several foreign funded projects had been used to fund Ravaya without FMM committee approval. “
The is no fraud
The former FMM project head Sunanda Deshapriya told LAKBIMA NEWS in an online interview from Switzerland; “First of all I should say that there was no such things as a Rs40 million fraud”.
The 2008 financial report, when I was the convenor, was not passed on the ground that it did not have a comment section. The audit firm when contacted stated that there was no need for a separate comment section. According to the treasurer K. Rushangan, the audit firm stands by the statement of accounts they prepared for 2008.”
“As far as I know, it is the 2009 accounts that have not been audited. But some of the 2009 projects accounts were completed and provided to the partners. They have accepted them. I do not have access to this information and I suggest you to refer to FMM for details.”
“FMM has defended journalists for 20 years with commitment and sacrifice. The story of a Rs40 million fraud is pure spin. Mistakes could have been made, in which case we need to ratify them and move forward. Even today FMM is the leading campaigner for press freedom in Sri Lanka.”
There are safeguards in place
The newly appointed FMM convenor Sharmini Boyle (YA TV) speaking about FMM’s past conduct said: “ All decisions regarding activities and response are guided by the FMM constitution which does have safeguards in place for the disbursement of funds, etc. There is specified process for financial transactions and I shall make sure that this process is adhered to in the coming year.”
Note from Colombo Telegraph
Colombo Telegraph investigations of the FMM financial scandal shows Sunanda Deshapriya’s above remarks are erroneous and deliberately so. In other words, he is a liar. Consider the following:
1. Deshapriya says ‘Rs40 million fraud is pure spin’. True it wasn’t the correct amount and the correct word to explain this. FMM’s own reports shows Rs 30,900,000 (30.9 million) went unaudited and that it failed to submit official accounts to its membership for the years 2007/2008 and 2008/2009.
2. Deshapriya says ‘The 2008 financial report, when I was the Convenor, was not passed on the ground that it did not have a comment section.’ The 2007/2008 audited accounts had to be submitted to the AGM held on May 29, 2008 but this was not done. The relevant officials were given one month to submit audited final accounts but they failed to do so. At the Special AGM held on January 20 2009 to discuss financial corruption in the organization, the then Secretary who had been the Treasurer for 2007/2008, K. Rukshangan tried to get the accounts passed. The then convenor Uvindu Kurukulasuriya opposed this move, giving details of various malpractices that had taken place in that financial year. And the membership agreed to investigate these allegations too. K Rukshangan never handed over any financial records, books , vouchers , invoices to FMM even following written requests. FMM had an auditor from the beginning but without any citing any reasonable cause, Deshapriya and Rukshangan went to an ‘auditor friend’
3. It was Uvindu Kurukulasuriya who uncovered the corruption that implicated Deshapriya, even after the audited accounts were submitted to Company register by another organization, the Centre for Policy Alternatives. Sunanda was sacked two years later.
4. In 2009 the FMM appointed two external auditors to investigate FMM financial year 2008/2009. One was NGKK Senaviratne and the other was BAW Abewardena . Both investigating officers found that day light robbery has taken place.