FMM Hides 40 Million Fraud
- Former Convenor misleads the members
By Frederica Jansz
Corruption is rampant in this country. But, even as we point fingers at this regime as we have done with each successive government it is only right we look inwards and examine our own backyard.
We don’t need to look far. 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.
The Free Media Movement (FMM), set up in 1991 by a group of journalists and freedom expression activists, had previously been shaken to its foundation by allegations of financial fraud and mismanagement.
For over a decade the FMM functioned as an activist organization on a voluntary basis with no full time paid employees or even an office. Its annual income was entirely from the 100-rupee 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 has on many occasions also 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 organization. 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. Deshapriya meanwhile fled the country on the pretext that his life was in danger and to date stalks the corridors of western NGOs claiming to be a journalist in exile. Deshapriya has worked in the NGO sector for most of his life working for organizations such as MERGE, Inform and the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
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.’
Even if we are to empathize with the current Convenor Sunil Jayasekera and accept that in 2011 threats against journalists were indeed high – which prevented him from acting on a decision taken at the AGM that year, the issue is this. The AGM was held on May 23 last year, where it was decided that the FMM would indeed issue a press release ‘WITHIN ONE MONTH’. What was the dramatic change in the political situation in the country between May 23 to June 23, 2011? 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 Jayasekara 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.
In accordance with the FMM constitution neither Jayasekera as the convenor nor the committee has the powers not to carry out a decision of the AGM. This Sunil Jayasekera admitted maintaining however that the decision, though not implemented, could not be carried out for reasons beyond his control.
In such instances, if for whatever reason the executive committee cannot carry out a decision taken at the AGM, the committee has to call a Special General Meeting to get the decision changed. Asked why he did not do so, Jayasekera responded that they never said they could not carry out the decision of the 2011 AGM. It was just not possible, he said during that period due to the threats on his life. Now he maintains he has every intention of carrying out that decision and has been given 15 days from May 29, this year to do so.
The new deadline was given by members at the AGM not to Sunil Jayasekara, who despite all this was elected the new Secretary, but to the new Convenor – Sharmini Boyle.
But the matter does not end there. Following the uncovering of massive financial fraud in previous years, 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 Jayasekara violated existing rules and spent money without the ‘prior’ approval of the executive committee.
The cover-up on this fraud smacks of not only highway robbery but deceit and a web of lies to cover the hides of corrupt journalists, who masquerade as freedom fighters. After all it is this same movement, the FMM, which in 1995 sacked Lucien Rajakarunanayake, one of the most prominent members of the organisation, for not being able to account for USD 2,600 in funds, a mere pittance compared to the 400,000 dollar fraud that has since taken place. It is also pertinent that Sunil Jayasekara was a member of the executive committee that failed to submit the audited accounts in 2009.
Jayasekera maintains that Rajakarunanayake was sacked because he admitted to having taken the money for his personal use having secured it in the first place by fronting for the FMM.
This again is a lie. Rajakarunanayake never used the money for personal use. In fact the funding was for a monthly newsletter from an international media organisation called IFEX and by the time the FMM found out that he had got foreign funding without its approval, he had already published the first issue.
What Jayaseka fails to mention is that during the inquiry Rajakarunanayake offered to refund the money in full to the funder. He not only did so, he also sent documentary proof of the repayment to IFEX to the FMM committee despite him been sacked by that time.
But the question is this. If Lucien could have been sacked from the FMM for having misappropriated USD 2,600 how come when USD 400,000 cannot be accounted for, nobody has been held responsible?
Sunil Jayasekera maintains that it is unclear how this entire Rs. 40 million went missing and that those under whose management the monies were received and handled have all left the country. “So it is not possible to conclude this investigation,” he said.
This again is incorrect. Sunil Jayasekara was a member of the executive committee at the time and it is that ExCo that is responsible for the finances of the organisation. What is crystal clear in the backdrop of Deshapriya’s deceit and the FMM cover-up is that the twisted logic and subtle manipulation of facts are all the same. All this, ironically, when ethics codes have been formulated anew by media organizations all over the world, including Sri Lanka.