The Sunday Leader

Selling the FMM for the good life

By Frederica Jansz

Sunanda Deshapriya

The Free Media Movement (FMM) set up in 1991 by a group of journalists and freedom of expression activists is been shaken to its foundation by allegations of financial fraud and mismanagement.
For over a decade the FMM functioned as an activist organisation on a voluntary basis with no full time paid employees or even an office. Its annual income was entirely from the Rs.100 membership fee. However it carried out a large number of campaigns to protect media freedom with the support of the media industry. The Sunday Leader also has on many occasions supported such campaigns with material help.

However this changed a few years ago and the FMM became a fully fledged NGO with Western countries providing tens of millions of rupees to fund various programmes carried out by the organisation. 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 fact is that despite now having at least six full time employees being paid between Rs. 20,000 and Rs.62,500 a month, even today the FMM does not employ an accounts clerk, leave alone a fully fledged accountant.
The man behind this transformation of the FMM from purely a voluntary organisation to an NGO was one of its most senior and high profile members — Sunanda Deshapriya now in the centre of a controversy. Deshapriya has worked in the NGO sector for most of his life working for organisations such as MERGE, Inform and the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Allegations of financial fraud

In the backdrop of media rights activist Sunanda Deshapriya being forced to resign as head of the media unit of the CPA, details of more specific allegations of financial fraud are emerging.
Is he a victim of a diabolical conspiracy hatched by certain vested interests?
This is the question buzzing in media and human rights activist circles right now.  If, we did not hold with us the documentary evidence available to the contrary, it would have been worthwhile pondering this question.
Deshapriya, the well known media rights fighter stepped down from his position as Free Media Movement (FMM) convenor in a ‘cloud’ following allegations of financial impropriety and ethical misconduct.

The allegations have been compounded by the fact that the Annual General Meeting of the FMM was held at the end of May last year without the committee providing audited accounts. At the AGM, Deshapriya as the outgoing convenor promised to table the accounts at the SGM “within one month” but has  failed to do so even todate.

Deshapriya it is charged is not only embroiled in an ethics flap, but stands accused of having cashed in handily on his deceits.

Admission of misappropriation

Not only did Deshapriya admit to misappropriating a sum of Rs. 180,000 from a project fund allocated to the Centre for Policy Alternatives, which he says he used to purchase an air ticket for Jacqueline Park, Director of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) Asia-Pacific, but is under investigation for also spending over half a million rupees for a six night stay at Heritance Hotel Kandalama when the workshop in question was only three days.
Deshapriya’s extended stay at Kandalama from July 7 – 13 last year which cost over half a million bucks, included costs incurred by Jacqueline Park, her husband Christopher Warren and their children whose hotel bills were all paid out of funds allocated for a conference on an ‘Advanced Module in Writing Training.’ Park and her family reside in Australia and are long standing personal friends of Deshapriya.

Documentary evidence further proves how Deshapriya has allegedly claimed enhanced fees running into hundreds of thousands of rupees from project funds allocated to the Free Media Movement for purported training, travelling costs and in one instance even the purchase of an additional mobile telephone for Rs. 15,480 which he has stated was vital to use as a “safety phone.” As well as a state-of-the-art Sonny IC Recorder — for what purpose is not clear.
For instance the regular fee for a trainer according to the FMM, is Rs. 5,000.
Deshapriya however has claimed on one single day, November 24, 2008, Rs. 38,400 as trainer fees for a workshop held in Matara and Ampara (he has been paid Rs. 38,400 for each workshop — both apparently conducted on the same day) as well as facilitator fees of Rs. 31,500 for a Kalutara workshop — also on the same day.

Hard hitting response

Jacqueline Park in a hard hitting response insists the allegations of misappropriation of project funds implicating her too is “unsubstantiated, inappropriate and unethical.”  She maintains that the IFJ has never participated in any plan to “cheat the funders.” But that every project has been independently audited as are the annual accounts of the IFJ Asia-Pacific.  “This means it is simply not possible for there to be any substance to the loose claims made,” she says, alluding to members of the FMM committee and its new Convenor Uvindu Kurukulasuriya.

The fact of the matter is however that Park is not only implicated in abusing project funds by overstaying her stay together with her family at a boutique style hotel in Kandalama,  but also, according to Deshapriya’s own admission, Park is party to having accepted that her air ticket for her trip to Sri Lanka in November 2007 to attend the Public Service Media Prize Giving was paid out of funds allocated to the Centre for Policy Alternatives for a separate project.
Compact disks

This is what transpired at the CPA.  Deshapriya had been directing a team that was organising the 2007 National Public Service Journalism Prize Awards Ceremony. At the event which was held in December at the Galle Face Hotel, promotional material was distributed on compact disks. The allegation levelled against Deshapriya is that he had got a sidekick to submit an over-valued invoice for the production of these CDs and claimed a difference of Rs. 180,000 for himself. A subsequent probe found the invoice to be fraudulent. It also revealed that payment had been made for 1,200 CDs but it remains unclear how many copies had been produced.

When contacted Deshapriya admitted he took the money — to purchase an air ticket for Jacqueline Park to attend the prize giving,  monies which he says he intended to reimburse no sooner funds were transferred for this purpose from the IFJ.

A letter from Park to Deshapriya dated June 13, 2008 in fact makes mention of this stating that the FMM is currently holding Rs. 192,150 as reimbursement to the IFJ for travel costs incurred by Jacqueline Park to the Public Service Media Prize-Giving even on November 16, 2007.
Why Deshapriya failed then to return the said monies to the CPA until he was questioned 10 months later is not clear.

Twisted logic

Instead, what is crystal clear in the backdrop of Deshapriya’s deceit is the expression, the twisted logic and the subtle manipulation of facts are all the same.
Park it is clear plays hard ball. She will twist facts, use emotions, play on Deshapriya and allegedly threaten no less than five journalist organisations in this country.

She will also insist on her interpretation of due process — hence her reference in her email on December 8, 2008 to; “If there were any questions, they should first be dealt with by the FMM committee and by the committee of the five organisations. We are, as always, prepared to provide information as requested. If either of the committees require any further information relating to these matters please let me know.”

On the question, for example, of per diem paid to Park, she notes (again in the email on December 8, 2008) that: “Regarding Uvindu’s question of five days perdiem paid for the PSM prize in October 2008, I arrived into SL on October 21 in preparation for the prize programme on October 24 until I joined the international mission five days later on October 26. It is standard practice to pay per diems for all days out of home country. As you all know, there is much work that goes into these programmes behind the scenes and before the major event.”

Spurious logic

This is spurious logic. What preparations did she do? What is the maximum number of days she can spend in Sri Lanka with per diems? Was this agreed at the outset? Was the rate agreed? These are post facto very difficult to answer, but is clear that Park will use every trick in the book to justify the money she has received.

All this, ironically, when ethics codes have been formulated anew by media organisations all over the world, including Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately it is scribes like Deshapriya and international NGO activists of Park’s calibre who destroy the image of media both here and abroad.  They fall into the category of correspondents who think it appropriate to seek the approbation of the people who govern their lives.

Deshapriya’s fondness to function with his hand in the till does not stop there. He also stands accused of misappropriating money from a Safety Fund created for the protection of journalists.
Security of journalists
Created in 2007, the safety fund is administered by the Sri Lanka Press Institute but handled by a steering committee which approves the release of money for projects related to the security of journalists.

The first steering committee comprised representatives of the Fojo Institute for Further Education of Journalists, International Media Support, Director General of SLPI, Sunanda Deshapriya representing civil society and later retired civil servant and diplomat Lionel Fernando.

This committee had reportedly approved a proposal from FMM for a project worth Rs.8.2 million to provide safety training for journalists, among other things. The project also envisaged the creation of an ‘emergency phone network’ among journalists and a safe-house for journalists under threat.
Half the proposed amount — around Rs. 4.2 million — was released to the FMM bank account in May, 2008. In return, the FMM agreed to provide the SLPI with financial and narrative reports and original receipts every six months.

The first report was due by October 31, 2008.
The receipts, financial and narrative reports did not come by October 31 despite repeated reminders. In the meantime, Deshapriya had resigned from the steering committee citing conflict of interest (as he was both a member of FMM and the committee). Interestingly Deshapriya only realised that there was a conflict of interest nearly two years after he accepted the appointment to the steering committee.

Financial or narrative reports

Receipts for the first six months, up to October 31, were finally submitted on December 13, but sources claim that the financial or narrative reports have not been provided to date.  The SLPI has now suspended payments to the FMM from the safety fund pending the submission of financial and narrative reports.
An audit is in progress.

Documents prove that some of the receipts indicate that not all is lily white when various allowances have reportedly been paid to certain FMM office bearers on the claim that they require heightened security.
For instance, Rs. 230,000 has been paid to Poddala Jayantha, the general secretary, Professional Journalists’ Association (PJA) as rent money for him to lease a house for a period of one year.

Another Rs. 198,000 has been paid as a lump sum also for rent to lease a ‘safe house’ for Sanath Balasuriya, the president of the Sri Lanka Working Journalists’ Association.  Here again it is for one year.
In reality the safe house used for such purpose is the FMM office situated at 28th Lane, off Flower Road, Colombo 7 for which cause the FMM collects another Rs. 25,000 as rent money from the safety fund.
One receipt in fact indicates that up to Rs. 100,000 has been spent from this fund to buy food from Food City Super Market for those ‘journalists under threat’ supposedly residing in this ‘safety house’ at Flower Road which also doubles up as the offices of the FMM.

Air ticket for wife obtained from ‘Safety Fund’
Responding to an allegation that monies for the protection of journalists have been further misappropriated not just by Deshapriya but also by the Director General of the Sri Lanka Press Institute Ranga Kalansooriya, this is what Kalansooriya had to say.

Q: Was an air ticket purchased last year out of funds allocated to the ‘safety fund’ for your wife?
A: Yes.  In August last year my life was seriously under threat and I was compelled to leave the country.  I did so with my wife, whose ticket was indeed paid out of the Safety Fund.  The payment was approved by the Board at a Board meeting in August last year as well as the Steering Committee.  The approval was granted on grounds of special circumstances and due to the then prevailing conditions of a serious threat to my life.

Q: How is this different to Deshapriya using project funds to purchase an air ticket for Jacqueline Park?
A: Deshapriya apparently did so using funds belonging to the Centre for Policy Alternatives. Those monies had nothing whatsoever to do or was in no way linked to the SLPI and the safety fund.

Q: What is the status of the current audit probing the finances of this safety fund?
A:  It is still ongoing. We should have a report a few weeks from now. The fund was begun in 2007.  The audit is covering the period 2007 and 2008.

Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu said Sunanda Deshapriya was found guilty of misappropriating project funds allocated to the CPA.

Q: Is it confirmed that an invoice for 1200 CDs was submitted but only 200 produced?
A: How many were in fact produced we don’t know as Sunanda signed the delivery note. But we were invoiced for and paid for 1200 CDs.

Q: So does this amount to fraud?
A: Yes. In a way it does.

FMM Convenor Uvindu Kurukulasuriya says…
Uvindu Kurukulasuriya, Deshapriya’s successor as convenor, Free Media Movement refuted allegations that the charges of financial fraud against Deshapriya had been instigated by him purely as some personal witch hunt.
“There is plenty of documentary evidence which proves Sunanda’s culpability — there is absolutely no truth to his charging me with some kind of a personal vendetta,” Kurukulasuriya said.

Sunanda Deshapriya says……
“I admit I did something wrong by taking those funds from the CPA budget — but I have paid the price for that. I only did so to buy Jacqueline Park her air ticket to attend the 2007 Public Service Media Prize-Giving. No sooner funds were reimbursed from the IFJ, I intended to return these monies to the CPA. I did not do this on my own — I had the FMM Committee’s approval for it.”

“The other allegations of financial fraud supposedly committed by me at the FMM are totally false. I have never taken a cent for myself other than what was due. In fact many times I have utilised my own personal funds to facilitate and promote various campaigns and work in the FMM.”

“This whole exercise is a witch-hunt instigated and managed by Uvindu Kurukulasuriya — since he took over as convenor of the FMM.”

The Financial withdrawal chart
of Sunanda Deshapriya
23.04.08 — Rs. 16071.00. Dialog Roaming/INSI 13.05.08 — Rs. 1,276. Internet/INSI 09.06.08 —Rs. 28,626.00. Brussels/INSI 17.06.08 — Rs. 15,480. Safety phone/INSI 02.07.08 — Rs. 10,000. Translation FES report- FES 07.07.08 — Rs. 400,000. TOT conference 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. Transport/ office travel/INSI 25.07.08 — Rs. 15,090. GFMD refunded 30.07.08 —Rs. 149,500. Mission Pakistan/ IFJ 18-08-08— Rs. 5,100. Fuel charges/INSI 19.08.08 — Rs. 8,792. Phone bill/INSI 25-08-08 — Rs. 1,50,600. Advance-Air ticket to Copenhagen 16.09.08 — Rs. 3600. Internet/INSI 16.09.08 — Rs. (No Details). Sonny IC recorder purchasing/INSI 25.09.08 — Rs. 15,000. Tel. bill /August 25. 09.08 —Rs. 6243. Insurance payment FMM savings/ IMS will refund 26.09.08 — Rs. 9,200. Visa fee/FMM savings 07.11.08 — Rs. 1,500. Travelling perdiem Matara workshop/ USAID 10.11.08 —Rs. 10,900. Transport/INSI 18.11.08 -Rs. 12,930.00 Mobile bill Sep/ October/ INSI 18.11.08 — Rs. 6,650. Fuel /INSI 24.11.08 —Rs. 38,400. Trainer fees Matara workshop/ Internews/ USAID 24.11.08 — Rs. 38,400. Trainer fees Ampara/ USAID 24.11.08 — Rs. 31,500. Facilitator fees Kalutara workshop/ Internews/EU.
The financial withdrawal chart of FMM Treasurer Kasun Yapa Karunaratna (He is a member of the committee of the Working Journalists’ Association)
23.04.08 — Rs. 5,000. PSJ Matara Trainer fees 09.10.08 — Rs. 80,000. PSJ provincial Uva, Eastern & Sabaragamuwa/(No bills) 10.10.08 — Rs. 112,000. Provincial ceremonies/(No bills) 31.10.08 — Rs. 3,000. Per diem Kalutara workshop/Internews/EU

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