Selling The FMM For The Good Life
The Free Media Movement (FMM) set up in 1991 by a group of journalists and freedom expression activists is being shaken to its foundations 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 fact is that despite now having at least six full-time employees being paid between 20,000 and 62,500 rupees a month, the FMM does not employee even an accounts clerk, leave alone a fully fledged accountant.
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 now in the centre of the controversy. 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.
In the backdrop of disgraced 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 parties with 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 under 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 to date.
Deshapriya, it is charged, is not only embroiled in an ethics flap but stands accused of having cashed in handily on his deceit.
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 IFJ Asia-Pacific, but he is also under investigation for spending over half a million rupees for a six-night stay at Heritance Hotel Kandalama during a workshop, when the duration of the event in question was only 3 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.’ (It was subsequently learnt that Christopher Warren did not accompany his family on this occasion.)
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 and 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 Sony 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 had claimed on one single day, November 24, 2008, Rs. 38,400 as trainer’s 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’s fees of Rs. 31,500 for a Kalutara workshop – also on the same day.
Jacqueline Park, in a hard hitting response, insists that the allegations of misappropriation of project funds implicating her too are ‘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 extending 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.
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 1,500 CDs but only 200 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 ten months later is not clear.
Instead, what is crystal clear in the backdrop of Deshapriya’s deceit is that the twisted logic and subtle manipulation of facts are the same.
It is worth bearing in mind that when dealing with people like Park who have been aided by Deshapriya is that they are good at what they do. This is sad and tragic, but to treat them as amateurs would be a mistake.
Park, it is clear, plays hard ball. She will twist facts, use emotions, play on Deshapriya and threaten no less than five journalist organizations in this country.
She will also insist on her interpretation of due process – hence her reference in her email on December 8, 2008: “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 8 December) that: “regarding Uvindu’s question of five days perdie paid for the PSM prize in October 2008, I arrived into SL on October 21 in preparation for the prize program 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 programs behind the scenes and before the major event.”
This is spurious logic. What preparations did she do? What is the maximum number of days she can spend in Sri Lanka with per diem? Was this agreed to at the outset? Was the rate agreed? These are post facto very difficult to answer, but it 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 organizations all over the world, including Sri Lanka.
Unfortunately it is scribes like Deshapriya and international NGO activists of Park’s caliber 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. Long candlelit dinners, plenty of sweet cakes, plying themselves with mobile phones which include members of their family, all lend credence to the charge that journalists are only second to politicians when it comes to back rubbing and corruption. At least, here, in Sri Lanka.
Deshapriya’s fondness to function with his hand in the till does not stop there. He also stands guilty of misappropriating money from a Safety Fund created for the protection 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 8.2 million rupees 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 4.2 million rupees – 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 realized that there was a conflict of interest nearly two years after he accepted the appointment to the steering committee.
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 filching has indeed taken place while 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 of the Professional Journalists’ Association (PJA) as rent money for him to lease a house at Ambuldeniya 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’ at Rajagiriya 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. 40,000 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 ‘safe house’ at Flower Road which also doubles up as the offices of the FMM.
The question is why two members were provided separate houses at huge costs when all other journalists ‘facing threats’ used the safe house at Flower Road.
Ranga Kalanasooriya Responds
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 he (Kalansooriya) had to say.
Q: Was an air ticket purchased last year out of funds allocated
to the ‘safety fund’ for your wife?
K: 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?
K: 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?
K: 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.