By Colombo Telegraph –
“The invasive interferences of newspaper ownership in the editorial independence of newspapers would compromise the very idea of media freedom in the country and we are afraid that this disturbing phenomenon is not confined to the recent events at the Ceylon Today newspaper,” the Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association in a statement released condemning the summary dismissal of Ceylon Today Editor in Chief Lalith Allahakkoon by the Ceylon Newspapers management last week.
In its statement the SLWJA calls upon the management of the Ceylon Today newspaper to respect the editorial independence of its editorial staff and to take urgent remedial actions as per the incident related to Mr Allahakkoon. “We extend our fullest support to the colleagues at the Ceylon Today and plan to take our next course of action depending on the response from the management of the Ceylon Today,” the SLWJA statement said.
The full text of the SLWJA statement is as follows:
For Immediate Release
Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association (SLWJA)
ISSUE: The arbitrary removal of Mr Lalith Allahakkoon, the editor in chief of Ceylon Today from his duties at the newspaper.
The Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association is extremely disturbed by the recent turn of events at Ceylon Today newspaper, where the editor in chief and respected journalist Lalith Allahakkoon was unceremoniously removed from all his duties by the management due to what we understand as Mr Allahakkoon’s refusal to publish politically motivated and potentially libelous news stories sanctioned by the top management.
(A countdown of events leading to the removal of Mr Allahakkon is described in details below.)
The SLWJA views the recent incident as a disturbing development in the context of media freedom in Sri Lanka, where the demarcation of the editorial independence and the ownership control has been increasingly blurred. The invasive interferences of newspaper ownership in the editorial independence of newspapers would compromise the very idea of media freedom in the country and we are afraid that this disturbing phenomenon is not confined to the recent events at the Ceylon Today newspaper.
In a context in which journalist associations, Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka and the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka are already campaigning together in order to improve the conditions of media environment and the competencies of media professionals, we believe that it is imperative that other existential issues, such as the need for a clear demarcation of editorial independence from the ownership control should also be explored as an urgent matter.
The SLWJA calls upon the management of the Ceylon Today newspaper to respect the editorial independence of its editorial staff and to take urgent remedial actions as per the incident related to Mr Allahakkoon. We extend our fullest support to the colleagues at the Ceylon Today and plan to take our next course of action depending on the response from the management of the Ceylon Today.
We have been informed by highly reliable sources at the Ceylon Today of the following series of events that led to the removal of Mr Allahakkoon.
1. At around 7 p.m. on the night of Wednesday June 13, Executive Director of Ceylon Newspapers Mr. Dushyantha Basnayake summoned Mr Lalith Allahakoon to his office and informed him that the management had decided to terminate the employment of Senior Cartoonist at Ceylon Today Wasantha Siriwardane. On his part, Mr Allahakkoon defended Mr Siriwardane, saying that he was satisfied with Mr Siriwardane’s performance and reminded Mr Basnayake that if the management was not happy with Mr Siriwardane and should they wish to discontinue him, he should firstly be warned in writing to give him an opportunity to rectify matters.
2. Subsequently Mr. Basnayake has informed Mr Allahakkoon that the management had decided to terminate his service due to several reasons – (a) Mr Allahakkoon’s alleged association with Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP – (b) that he failed to greet Chairman Tiran Alles at a reception held at the Indian High Commissioner’s residence in Colombo and (c) the he failed to publish the unsubstantiated lead story by the Mawbima saying there would be a presidential election in 2013 and contradicted the story on the following day.
On that instance, Mr Allahakkoon clarified that the Ceylon Today story was related to the provincial council elections and not to the presidential elections. It is imperative to note that in any case, the Mawbima lead story was inaccurate and had no legal basis as per the constitutional provisions related to the conduct of presidential election in Sri Lanka. Mr Allahakkoon reminded Mr Basnayake that newspapers could not publish based on the sensational impact of a story alone, but must adhere to certain ethic codes and accuracy.
3. Mr. Basnayake then informed Mr Allahakkoon that his editorial policy and the management’s editorial policy do not tally. To which he replied that when the Ceylon Today newspaper was launched, Chairman Tiran Alles assured that Ceylon Today would be an independent and non-partisan newspaper – and even told the editorial team that they would not be required to publish stories praising him. He added that, however as time progressed, and subsequent to everything that has happened, the impression created is that the Chairman’s intention was to use Editor in Chief Mr Allahakkoon and the editorial team to specifically target and attack his political opponents. Mr Allahakkoon claims that if there was dissatisfaction with his performance, up to June 13, the management had not indicated this to him in writing or in any other way.
4. Mr. Basnayake then informed Mr Allahakkoon that the management wanted him to leave. Mr Allahakkoon requested the termination notice in writing.
5. Ms Hana Ibrahim, a respected senior journalist was then appointed by the management as the editor in chief of Ceylon Today. Ms Ibrahim had requested the staff to extend their support to her to publish Ceylon Today and carry forward ideas of Mr Allahakkoon in his absence.
6. Mr. Basnayake has also summoned a meeting of Ceylon Today Department Heads and informed them that the management had made the decision to terminate Mr Allahakkoon because he was not following the editorial policy line the management wanted. Mr. Basnayake requested the heads of department to lend their support to Ms. Ibrahim.
7. On June 14 when Mr Allahakkoon reported to work and made several telephone calls to Mr. Basnayake informing him that since he had not been served with the letter of termination so far, he had been compelled to report to work. Mr Basnayake repeatedly assured that the letter would arrive within an hour, 30 minutes etc.
8. Finally Mr. Basnayake asked Mr Allahakkoon to return to his residence and said that the letter would be delivered to his residence.
9. Following announcements by Mr. Basnayake that Mr Allahakkoon had been terminated, four senior journalists at the newspaper tendered their resignations to the management in protest. They were Deputy Editors Wilson Gnanadass and Dharisha Bastians, and senior journalists Rasika Jayakody and Dinidu De Alwis. They informed that they disagreed with the management decision to summarily dismiss the editor in chief Mr Allahakkoon for striving to maintain editorial independence that was promised by the management when the newspaper commenced publication.
10 Mr Allahakkoon made several telephone calls to Mr Basnayake on June 15, and yet again he promised to get back to Mr Allahakoon in an hour. Since that time, he has ceased to respond to Mr Allahakkoon telephone calls.
11. On Saturday (June 16) Mr Allahakkoon reported to work in order to coordinate the Sunday newspaper. When he entered his office, he found that it was locked. The security officers subsequently unlocked the door but when he entered and attempted to commence work, he found that his official Computer had been deactivated and he no longer was able to access his machine.
Sri Lanka Working Journalist Association (SLWJA)
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