Does the Free Media Movement love old wine?

The right to information is something that’s made the news.  Indeed it should not be in the news but ought to pervade everything associated with ‘news’.  We are not privileged in this regard.  A few weeks ago I commented in this column about the burying of Karu Jayasuriya’s Private Member’s move to institute Right to Information legislation.  The shrill objections from the Government benches indicated nothing if not regime-unease regarding the use to which such legislation could be put, never mind the fact that Karu’s document proposed relevant and even necessary safeguards with respect to national security.

There are many things we need to  thank Mahinda Rajapaksa for, but gratitude on one or more matters is not license for as-I-wish and certainly no reason to expect or demand gratitude, approval or silence on all things.  We don’t have the worst media policy on earth.  When cowards and politically compromised individuals or organizations scream about media freedom or rather the lack of it, I am not impressed.  There was a time when this society suffered all kinds of deprivations silently and consciously.  ‘Greater threat’ was a legitimate excuse for silence.  Absence of threat, however, makes certain deprivations and silences unacceptable.

It takes time to ease into ‘normalcy’ and acceptable speed is a subjective matter, I know, but as we move out of the war zone, we need to build un-war like systems.  This government has the numerical strength in parliament, a discernable backing of the general population, thrives on the largely unfair assaults directed at it by spoilers in the international community and so on.  It is not operating as though it does not trust its constituency. This is a bad sign. Indeed it is the first sign of a formal and unabashed preference for the coercive elements of the state apparatus.  It means there is something to hide or plans that need to be hidden.

Gagging is hard in this day and age, but even partial gagging can make a difference to the power equation.  That ‘difference’ is impacted by who and what is being gagged.  An oppressed people can and will, sooner or later, get rid of the oppressor, but an oppressor, however hard he/she may try can never get rid of the people.

It all involves hard work.  It requires integrity too. Some years ago it was observed, that a government which opts for a fifth rate media policy cannot complain about third rate journalism.  No media policy, however bad, justifies journalistic sloth, arrogance and lack of integrity, though.  Our problem seems to be less about low quality journalism than third rate advocacy for media rights.  Indeed, we are so bad on the advocacy front that we make governments with poor track records on media policy actually look quite the champions of the freedoms they are said to be suppressing.

Yes, I am talking about the Free Media Movement (FMM), an organization which in agitation-coalition and individual pronouncement have frequently acted in ways to promote the cause of separatism and served to whitewash terrorism.  

I wrote about the FMM way two years ago (‘Some thoughts on media rights advocacy,’ in ‘The Nation’, August 2, 2009).  This was after someone decided to check FMM accounts and matters pertaining to financial management.  This was when Sunanda Deshapriya, one time Convener of the FMM resisted an internal audit being conducted.  This was just after he was found to have defrauded the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).  The CPA hushed it all up by asking the man to resign; limiting ‘action’ to the issuance of a media release purporting that there had been some ‘lack of clarity’. Repeated calls for elaboration were received with dead silence by the CPA. Subsequent disclosures of financial hanky-panky only strengthen the perception that the CPA was terrified of an investigation opening a veritable can of worms.

On May 29, 2009, the FMM issued a release stating that its Executive Committee had been dissolved on January 20, 2009 and an Interim Committee appointed along with a 3-member committee to investigate allegations of fraud.  Investigations revealed that a massive fraud had been committed in the years 2007 and 2008 (i.e. during Deshapriya’s tenure).    The release also stated that the General Body of the FMM had authorized the committee to carry out further investigations.

This had happened when accounts submitted regarding a Rs. 3.06 million project handled by Deshapriya had not been accepted by the General Body.   This was (hold your breath!) and ‘Anti-Corruption’ project, jointly proposed by Transparency International (!), the CPA (!) and the FMM (!!).  In short, money was robbed from a project that aimed to put a stop to robbery!

It was found that a certain Jackie Park of the IFJ (International Federation of Journalists, i.e. a global version of Deshapriya’s FMM) had unabashedly instructed Deshapriya to try out the time-tested pilfering method of double-billing.  She was then the Asia-Pacific Director of that organization.  I am told that Ravindra Chandralal, Manjula Wediwardena and Athula Vithanage were told about this.  A subsequent Convener of the FMM had complained to the Executive Committee of the IFJ, only to be told that audits had been done and nothing could be done. This amounted to more sweeping under the carpet; perhaps another can of worms that no one wanted opened.  

At the AGM on March 20, 2010, it was stated that relevant documents had been suppressed by project coordinators, making it impossible for a proper and complete audit to be conducted for the said years.  The General Body had authorized the newly elected Committee to request all project coordinators to release relevant documents within a month.  To my knowledge, Sunanda Deshapriya and others are yet to do so.

A new committee should not be answerable to the crimes of the thieves it has replaced of course, but the FMM given its vision, mission, moral posturing and so on, cannot sweep things under the carpet.  ‘He went abroad’ is not excuse worthy of consideration.  The signal it gives is simple: rob and leave.  Like Deshapriya, perhaps.  ‘Not enough money’ doesn’t sound right, given the vast sums the FMM has received and continues to receive for doing zilch for media freedom (individual journalists who have done what journalists are supposed to do, i.e. write the truth, have done more).  The FMM is poor indeed if it can’t find a single capable investigative journalist ready to do a pro bono investigation.  If there’s something wrong about that, I can find the money for such an investigation.  Would the FMM take me up on the offer?

Methinks there’s a can of worms that the FMM doesn’t want to touch.  It is up to the FMM to prove me wrong.  I really don’t care what happens to the FMM, let me be honest.  My only concern is that advocacy organizations that engage in odd operations only make true advocacy difficult.

Two years ago I thought the FMM will clean up its act and clear the ground for true, meaningful and effective advocacy.  I was disappointed.

It is up to Sunil Jayasekera and his team to turn things around.  Dodging the hard issues won’t get them very far in the matter of winning democratic space.  It could take them far.  Like it did people like Deshapriya.  Let’s see what happens.

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