Sunday Times Editor Violates “Capri” Rules
- Sneaking In And Out Like A Thief In The Night
Recently The Sunday Times in particular ran prominent stories about the alleged “unsavoury” happenings at the ‘Capri’ a popular social club at Kollupitiya, Colombo 3. At one point even racial abuse was being thrown at each other. While this is essentially an internal matter for the club, to be addressed by its members, we now understand that outsiders have been stoking the fire for reasons which are not too hard to guess. It appears that one of the outsiders involved was none other than Sinha Ratnatunge, Editor of The Sunday Times which lent prominence to the shenanigans going on at the Capri, week after week.
The fact is that not so long ago Ratnatunge was a regular “guest” of one of the office bearers who later was a victim of the journalistic invective of this newspaper. Namely, Ananda Chittampalam, Vice President of the Capri Club. The issue is this. Ratnatunge blatantly ignored rules pertaining to “guest visits” which eventually led to the breach in his friendship with Chittampalam. Or was it a question of familiarity breeding contempt!
Ratnatunge in fact not only ignored the rules pertaining to “guest visits” but despite the fact that he is not a member at the club has on repeated occasions himself hosted and entertained “guests” at the Capri.
In a letter dated August 18, 2010, the President of the club D. Morgan Fernando wrote to all club members. In this letter he refers to a note sent to all members on July 7th this year titled “Some matters pertaining to the club.”
Quote: “In Clause 4, I referred to a guest who had come on eight occasions within a matter of six weeks in June and July 2010 (and continued to come thereafter). This reference was to the Editor of The Sunday Times who has been visiting the Club as a guest of two members. Ironically, the two members have thought it fit not to sign him in even once during the period. The Guest Book is available for anyone to see for the period May to July 2010.”
“When a Member of the Committee brought to his notice and stated that we would be delighted to have him as a Member, his response (Ratnatunge) was that he is not interested in joining the Club and he will come only as a guest. Every Sunday he preaches ‘Good Governance’ in his editorials but does not approve the Club of practicing ‘Good Governance’.”! Unquote.
Thereafter, Morgan Fernando adds, that a newspaper article which appeared on page 4 of The Sunday Times on August 15, 2010 seems to be an example of “The Empire Strikes Back.”
The article in question was written by Leon Berenger, a journalist at The Sunday Times. Fernando states that on August 12, “Mr. Berenger telephoned me and the Hony. Secretary for comments on the VAT issue and other issues pertaining to the Club. When speaking to us he seemed to have knowledge of whatever was going on in the Club. Obviously he had been briefed by a Member of the Club.”
We reproduce below an excerpt of the article published on August 15, 2010 in The Sunday Times which ran a story headlined:
Capri Club President, Deputy, Found Guilty Of Breaking Rules
Special Committee finds Morgan Fernando and Ananda Chittampalam circumvented club rules in questionable VAT scam
By Leon Berenger
The President and the Vice President of one of Colombo’s leading social clubs have been found guilty of violating their own rules and their own constitution over a VAT issue involving the club.
A special select committee of the club membership has found that President Morgan Fernando and Vice President Ananda Chittampalam had circumvented club rules by hiring a tax consultant without involving others in the management committee and paid him a princely sum of Rs. 575,000 as his fees. This is to settle an Inland Revenue Department VAT claim that amounted to only Rs. 528,000.
The 57-year-old Capri Club, located centrally in Kollupitiya, has a wide cross section of members ranging from honourable gentlemen, professionals, businessmen, planters and arms dealers among them.
The select committee has ruled that Mr. Chittampalam had “overstated” by as much as Rs.1.8 million the amount the Inland Revenue Department had claimed from the club “for reasons unknown to the committee” and rushed through with the payment to the tax consultant, stating that this needed to be done to obtain the bar licence before January 1, 2010.
“This article indeed has prostituted journalism and it is very clear that the purpose of this article was to do a ‘hatchet’ job on myself and particularly the Vice President,” Morgan Fernando said.
The article in question stated that the Vice President had over-stated by as much as Rs.1.8 million the amount claimed by the DIR. According to Fernando, this was despite him having stated that the Vice President had no correspondence with the Select Committee and that they owe him an apology for stating his name incorrectly.
“Nowhere has the General Membership called this matter a fraud as indicated,” Fernando said, adding that the reference that the Tax Consultant was prepared to return a portion of his fees is incorrect. “I informed Mr. Berenger that he had indeed returned the entire Rs. 575,000 but the Committee unanimously decided to return the cheque.”
“In the last para of this article they refer to 40 new members who have been brought in for political reasons for voting at the next AGM. Forty two new members were brought, in order to raise the revenue for the Club and we have raised Rs. 2.5 million as a result. I doubt whether anyone can challenge the high quality of the new members,” Fernando states in his letter to the members.
“I was advised that the best thing is to ignore the article which appeared in this ‘Rag.’ Obviously the newspaper and the ‘gutter journalist’ Mr. Berenger do not know the truth from falsehood,” Fernando said.
The story does not end there. According to Fernando, Restaurant Secretary Nihal Perera resigned from the Club after he had been repeatedly threatened over the telephone. The caller had verbally abused him “stating unmentionable comments about the Hotel and that it is a conflict of interest for him to hold office in the Capri because he was using the Capri staff (both male and female) at his Hotel,” Fernando said. He adds that Nihal Perera runs an exclusive Hotel in Moratuwa. “Not once but repeatedly Perera was abused in this manner,” Fernando charged, adding “the bottom line was that if he did not resign they will publish this in The Sunday Times. Now from slander we have graduated to threats,” he said.
That apart Ratnatunge also failed to publish that both Morgan Fernando and Ananda Chittampalam were re-instated following a court injunction.
Ratnatunge also failed to ever state that a “friend” Aruna Fernando, Treasurer of the Capri, was named and found guilty in the VAT Commission report.
In the “media world” it is no secret how cleverly Sinha Ratnatunge not only engages in double speak and double standards but has manipulated and influenced the judging process of nominees for awards given to journalists in the yearly ‘Journalism Awards For Excellence.’
How else can one explain the blatant circumvention of rules and regulations stated in black and white for a panel of judges to follow in relation to the ‘Scoop Of The Year’ award for 2009 (which went to The Sunday Times News Desk for a series of articles) as well as the awarding of a prize, the ‘D.R. Wijewardene Award For Earning The Appreciation Of Peers And The Public’ to Iqbal Athas, for consistently reporting on defence matters for the year 2009 when he never wrote a single defence copy during the whole of 2009! His last column was on December 28, 2008.
The main award was nevertheless given to Iqbal Athas while Shamindra Ferdinando, Sirimevan Kasthuriarachchi, Mihiri Fonseka and Ramesh Warallagama received ‘honourable mention’. This despite the fact that the relevant citation had mentioned that the year under consideration, 2009, was a period of political and military uncertainly and that the awarders wanted to reward writing in the public interest, keeping the people informed and offering relevant analysis.
We journalists however can still take heart that amongst our breed most of whom confine themselves to Sri Lanka’s favourite pastime – stabbing each other in the back – there are a yet a few among us who continue to stand tall and be counted. And in that context one name springs to mind – that of Shamindra Ferdinando of the Daily Island newspaper. Ferdinando, at least had the gumption to return the merit award given to him as runner-up to the D. R Wijewardene award, rightly insisting that he had consistently reported on defence matters throughout the year 2009 – including filing reports from the frontline too – while Iqbal Athas had done neither but was nevertheless given the prize.
Of course, one hardly expected the News Desk of The Sunday Times to follow in Ferdinando’s footsteps. Knowing full well the award given to them was in clear violation of the criteria laid down for that particular category they nevertheless unashamedly picked up the award for ‘Scoop Of The Year’ (obviously on the instructions of their boss and Editor Sinha Ratnatunge) for “a series of articles” when the category in black and white clearly states: Quote “This category is for the journalist or team of journalists who have published the SINGLE BEST exclusive report for the year that had national implications. Please submit a copy of THE story and supporting statement” unquote. That the awards – for the ‘Scoop Of The Year’ and the ‘D.R. Wijewardene Award For Earning The Appreciation Of Peers And The Public,’ was in blatant disregard of rules and regulations set out by the Editors Guild and the Sri Lanka Press Institute – both bodies under the watchful eye of Sinha Ratnatunge and Ranjit Wijewardene – Chairman, Wijeya Group of Newspapers was not only ignored but surreptitiously manipulated.
Both Ratnatunge and Wijewardene together with the current President of the Editors Guild, Manik De Silva and Chairman, Sri Lanka Press Institute, Kumar Nadesan thereafter studiously ignored a written complaint from The Sunday Leader to this effect. All this from editors and publishers who every Sunday preach good governance and moral practices. That the Chairman of the judging committee Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam also chose to ignore with blatant disregard the rules and criteria he was expected to follow when choosing nominees for the awards, despite us having delivered to him the criteria and written seeking fair play in relation to the selecting of the winners. Kariyawasam however failed to live up to his reputation acting instead in a manner that was both irresponsible and unethical – including being downright rude in choosing to ignore also a written complaint.
And as showcased in the Capri Club drama this newspaper group (The Wijeya Group) clearly sees fit to ignore the very basics of journalistic ethics which they nevertheless loudly tout to other media organisations insisting we all practise and abide by same.
This group in fact refused to carry a correction when they had clearly misreported facts with relation to evidence given pertaining to court proceedings in the ‘White Flag case.’
At The Sunday Leader we pride ourselves on saying it as it is – and we have said this before and we will say it again. We remain unbowed and unafraid and do not wrap our reports in selective heresay or diplomatic speak – afraid the truth will only get us into trouble.
It is indeed disheartening that a newspaper group that used to pride themselves on being credible and ethical is today not only subservient and servile but selective in its reportage and biased too as we pointed out in our columns last Sunday.
And as it is clear in their reporting of the internal crisis surrounding the Capri Club it was this same newspaper – The Sunday Times — when reporting on the ‘White Flag Case’ last Sunday (10) ran a banner headline saying “Editor Admits To Mistake During Defence Counsel Grilling” lending readers the impression that I had admitted to making a mistake on reporting the story “Gota Order Them Killed,” of December 13, 2009. When in fact the “mistake” they were referring to was merely that I got wrong the surname of Amal Jayasinghe, Bureau Chief for AFP. A momentary lapse of memory I had in the box which Amal Jayasinghe himself had no issue with. For no sooner I got out of court that day I tried calling him to apologise only to learn he was away – nevertheless, he responded to my apologetic text message saying “Am out at the moment. No worries. No chance to read any of the reports yet.”
But The Sunday Times for vested reasons all their own – as did their sister paper the Daily Mirror consistently slanted their reports on the court proceedings deliberately giving it a misleading perspective and banner headlines that had nothing to do with the charge in relation to the case. Of course we expect nothing better of the Wijeya Group. It’s a case of singing for your supper. The larger revenue from advertising and also getting other contracts (government is the biggest business in Sri Lanka) depends how close to the regime one is.
And so, the Group has now reduced and restricted themselves to reporting selective rubbish that has effectively rubber-stamped this government’s muzzling of the “independent press.”
What has become of journalists of the caliber of Tarzie Vittachi, D. Sivaram (Taraki), Mervyn De Silva and last but not least Lasantha Wickrematunge? Why are today’s media houses not only bowing to the dictates of an autocratic regime but also bending over backwards to not just servile but selective in their reports deliberately destroying any and all attempts at being non partisan?
If indeed we wish to construct an effective opposition in Parliament then we must not only concentrate in choosing the best leader and re-building an effective team but we as journalists as members of the fourth estate must first ensure our credibility and impartiality.
Why has our local media forgotten what compromises simple journalistic ethics? The principles by which we should all govern ourselves when we put pen to paper?
In addition to the legal rights and obligations set forth in the relevant legal norms, the media have an ethical responsibility towards citizens and society which must be underlined at the present time, when information and communication play a very important role in the formation of citizens’ personal attitudes and the development of society and democratic life. The journalist’s profession comprises rights and obligations, freedoms and responsibilities. The basic principle of any ethical consideration of journalism is that a clear distinction must be drawn between news and opinion, making it impossible to confuse them. And of course most important of all our reports should be based on truthfulness, ensured by the appropriate means of verification and proof, and impartiality in presentation, description and narration. Rumour must not be confused with news. News headlines and summaries must reflect as closely as possible the substance of the facts and data presented. But all of this is thrown by the wayside – trashed in fact – by a media that has chosen to not only be partisan, fearful of incurring the wrath of a regime they perceive to be dictatorial but sub-standard to the point of no return.
With the exception of course of The Sunday Leader, the Ravaya and Lakbima newspapers, we have editors in place who no longer have the courage to stand tall for what is right. Editors and publishers who sup with the President when commandeered to do so at his behest, too afraid to even voice an opinion – when they dine with him. They sit around meekly refusing to even engage him on matters of national interest but instead grin sheepishly, literally gulp their food and vanish. This is the current calibre of media bosses local journalists are expected to look up to and emulate.
As pointed out in my editorial last Sunday every week you buy the lie. You buy the lie that this is a functioning media. They sell the lie that this is a functioning democracy. A week later they wrap your lunch in it, which is about all it’s really good for.
Most papers today are just lies to keep the rice from falling out. As long as the economy keeps us fed, we don’t really care. We are pumped full of stories via print, SMS, TV and radio but there is precious little meat. It is only bland press releases with the occasional chili like Mervyn Silva, enough to keep you consuming more. It was the final phase of the war that saw the media turn servile. So thanks to a servile UPFA, a weak opposition and a pliant media democracy;freedom of speech and expression is all but dead in Sri Lanka.