DBS quits “Nation” in dismay
Saturday, 06 September 2008 16:41
A very reputed and respected journalist D.B.S. Jeyaraj, popular among English readers who was contributing a column to the “Nation” news paper has informed the new management of the Rivira Media Corporation that he is calling it quits with them on ethical issues.
“It was indeed pathetic to see Mr. Abeywardane referring to Mr. Nilanka Rajapakse frequently to determine the fate of news stories. When “Montage” editor and contributing writer to “The Nation” Frederica Jansz was issued a death threat, even a single column story about it was pulled out of the paper as instructed by Mr. Rajapakse. I have been observing with dismay the deterioration setting in at the newspaper. It is blatantly obvious that news and views regarded as anti – government are being blacked out or reduced in tone or content.” says Mr. Jeyaraj in his letter addressed to the new owners of the news paper.
In a very long and personalised letter informing his decision to quit, Mr. Jeyaraj likens the new management to that of government controlled Lake House, saying, “Mr. Alahakoon was relieved of all responsibilities and has been kicked upstairs”.
Mr. Jeyaraj also says the new management with Prasanna Wickramasuriya a relative of President Rajapaksa and a namesake Nilanka Rajapakse has turned the news paper into a hand out of news plants and it’s a case of using a combination of violence, intimidation and money power as used by the Tamil Tigers to convert institutions and individuals to their point of view
Following is the full text of the letter sent by DBSJ
Mr. Prasanna Wickramasuriya and Mr. Nilanka Rajapakse
Rivira Media Corporation
September 3rd 2008
Dear Mr. Wickramasuriya and Mr. Rajapakse
As you both would be aware I have been writing regular columns and articles for “The Nation” and “The Bottom Line”. I began writing from September 2007 mainly due to the efforts of the Rivira media corporation’s former Chief executive officer Mr. Krishantha Prasad Cooray.
Though I have enjoyed this stint with Rivira media corporation and would very much have liked to continue even after a new management took over recent events have forced me to take a painful decision.
It is with regret that I inform you officially that I would not be writing for Rivira Media coroporation publications in the future.
It is indeed a pity that my first direct communication to you both should be of this negative nature but I have been left with no valid choice other than this. I would therefore like to outline my reasons in greater detail instead of merely writing a short, polite note as is usual in such instances. My intention is to protest over recent developments at “the Nation” and to point out that the newspaper is heading for disaster unless an urgent course correction is effected. Since I am more at home in writing an article rather than a letter I am writing this as some sort of a first person account I do hope that it is received by both of you in the correct spirit.
Let me begin by briefly tracing recent events leading to my decision. When I teamed up with “The Nation” last year both the CEO Krishantha Cooray and Editor Lalith Alahakoon gave me an assurance that I would enjoy the same freedom I had at “The Sunday Leader” and “The Morning Leader”. These were gentleman’s agreements and were honoured diligently by both in the past. The same assurance was provided and honoured by “The Bottom Line” Editor Nisthar Cassim when I commenced writing for that paper also. The independence provided to me as well as the phenomenon of a dedicated team striving to run a “Fiercely independent” paper strengthened my belief that I would be happy at “The Nation”.
“The Nation” had a talented young team with a much respected Editor and Associate Editor and a dynamic CEO at the helm. I knew that this was a winner and felt proud to be associated with the paper. And then the world crashed around “The Nation”. It has been the modus operandi of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to use a combination of violence, intimidation and money power to convert institutions and individuals to their point of view. This is exactly what happened to Rivira Media corporation.
First there was violence and our lovable Associate Editor Keith Noyahr was abducted , brutalised and tortured. He is now a refugee in a foreign land. No action has been taken to apprehend those responsible. What has Rivira media corporation done to seek justice for Keith Noyahr? Has the company paid any compensation to this tragic victim whose only crime was to raise pertinent doubts about those in power?
I have no doubt that if Krishantha Cooray had remained in Sri Lanka as CEO he would have tried hard to obtain justice for Keith. But Krishantha was the next victim. There was a credible threat to his life and KP Cooray was also forced to flee the Country. Then came the death threats to the Editor Lalith Alahakoon. He too was forced to seek temporary refuge abroad.
It is against this backdrop that the “transition” took place. In Mafia jargon “an offer that could not be refused” was made to Sena Yaddehige. A new duo comprising Prasanna Wickramasuriya (51%) and Nilanka Rajapakse (49%) took over. Thus Krishantha Cooray was no more the CEO Everything was in a state of flux , fear and uncertainty in late May and June.
It was only the determination and resolve displayed by a few at “The Nation” that enabled the paper to be put out in those weeks. Among those who rose up to the occasion I must single out senior sub – editor Marianne David for special praise. Her role was invaluable in the paper pulling through in those dark times.
I myself was deeply troubled by all what was happening. The newspaper may have changed hands but my soul and conscience had not been bartered away. The violence and intimidation as well as the circumstances surrounding the change of management left a bad taste. My instinctive reaction was to register my protest at what happened by quitting “The Nation”. Yet I did not do so for four reasons.
Firstly I did not want to abandon my colleagues who had limited options and wanted to remain at the paper notwithstanding the changes; Secondly I felt it was not fair to assume the worst at the outset and move out before giving the new management an opportunity to prove its bona fides. Thirdly I did not want any accusation against Krishantha Cooray that he was conspiring against the paper. In fact Krishantha strongly urged me to remain with “The Nation” Fourthly Lalith Alahakoon had indicated that he would return and run the paper.In the absence of Krishantha and Keith I felt some moral support should be extended to Lalith.
So I decided to continue with “the Nation”. I also persuaded some other colleagues to remain with the paper saying “ let’s give it a try and see”. There were some hassles caused by the turbulent transition and for a short time I too was not sure of what plans the new management had for me. But my doubts were soon cleared and I was convinced that the new management very much wanted me to continue. Thus when some other newspapers tried to enlist me I told them politely that I intended continuing at “The Nation” unless something drastic occurred.
Despite these intentions and a keen effort to continue with “The Nation” the course of events indicated that all was not going to be well. I am well aware that usually a change of policy is brought about by a new ownership. The ideal would be for a frank discussion with the editors to identify relevant issues followed by the issuance of policy guidelines. I accept the fact that the management has the right to evolve policy. But my viewpoint is that the management having issued policy guidelines should not interfere with the day to day administration of the editorial. That is a matter left to the Editor alone.
But what happened here was that no guidelines were issued and senior journalists were asked to act according to their “common sense”. The problem here is who defines what is common sense? There is no commonality about common sense.As a result there is a lot of confusion in the paper. To make matters worse the hands of Lalith Alahakoon became increasingly manacled. The sudden elevation of business editor Gamini Abeywardane as senior Associate editor created an alternate centre of power in the Editorial.
It was indeed pathetic to see Mr. Abeywardane referring to Mr. Nilanka Rajapakse frequently to determine the fate of news stories. When “Montage” editor and contributing writer to “The Nation” Frederica Jansz was issued a death threat even a single column story about it was pulled out of the paper as instructed by Mr. Rajapakse. I have been observing with dismay the deterioration setting in at the newspaper. It is blatantly obvious that news and views regarded as anti – government are being blacked out or reduced in tone or content.
Stories perceived as being detrimental to UNP interests are finding greater prominence and coverage. Moreover some pro – government and anti – opposition stories being carried are obvious plants and hand – outs. From my observation, Mr. Nilanka Rajapakse seems to be more at fault in this respect than Mr. Prasanna Wickramasuriya. Ironically it is Mr. Wickramasuriya who is the kinsman of President Rajapakse and not Nilanka who is no relative despite being namesakes. In practice Nilanka seems to be trying to prove that he is of the “Rajapakse clan” too.
Thus there has been a very heavy hand of self – censorship being imposed on the paper now. The trend is more sunshine stories about the government and the growing absence of news regarded as anti – government. Again there is confusion about defining what an anti – government story is. Even the publication of news from the government gazette is at times frowned upon.
I am reliably informed that Mr. Nilanka Rajapakse was told of the paper’s credibility being eroded by this shameless exercise of sycophancy. But he reportedly replied “ I don’t care. His Excellency’s friendship matters to me more than all this”. This may augur well for Mr. Nilanka Rajapakse but it certainly does not for the independence of journalists or freedom of the press.
I too had to experience internal censorship last week. As for myself I am not a defence writer though I write about the war at times. But in recent times I have devoted much space in my columns to the war and related developments. This is because our regular military affairs writer “Senpathy” (Keith) is no more with the paper. Since the war in the wanni is currently the hot topic I did not want our readers short- changed in this respect. Since there was also a specific request from Lalith I have been functioning like an unofficial defence correspondent in recent times though often spotlighting the predicament of people affected by the fighting.
Last week I wrote one article about the advances made by the army in three places in the Wanni. I had also planned on writing about the LTTE bombing in Trincomalee. I had spoken with many Trinco residents on the phone and obtained information that contradicted claims made in Colombo about the bombing.
To my disappointment I was prevented from writing about the new information I had gathered. I was told that it would be provocative to those in the corridors of power. So there was no news or article in “The Nation” about the Trincomalee bombing. Sadly for “The Nation” all other newspapers had a lot to say on the incident. Obviously I was angered at this and intended pursuing the matter during this week with those concerned. I wanted to point out that I could not continue writing about the war from a military perspective alone and that if and when the LTTE struck decisively such acts should also be written about.
I also felt that this action was but a straw in the wind. I felt that things could only get worse and thought to myself that the time for moving out was drawing near. I was only pondering “When”? However events began overtaking.
A news story about our ambassador to the USA Mr. Jaliya Wickramasuriya writing to foreign secretary Palitha Kohona was published in “The Nation” on August 24th. Since our envoy to the US is the elder brother of Mr. Prasanna Wickramasuriya great offence was taken at what was basically an innocuous story which appeared in other papers also. When inquiries were conducted Lalith Alahakoon took responsibility for the alleged “lapse”. He was summoned to Mt. Lavinia Hotel by Nilanka Rajapakse who asked Alahakoon to tender his resignation. Mr. Alahakoon quite rightly refused and asked that he be fired if the management did not want him.
What happened next was something that occurs frequently in the Govt controlled “Lake House” but not what one would expect to happen in an independent concern like Rivira media corporation. Mr. Alahakoon was relieved of all responsibilities and has been “kicked upstairs” like in Lake House. Gamini Abeywardane is placed in charge and all news stories and articles are to be cleared by him.
If Abeywardane had any concept of professional ethics or integrity he should have declined but he did not. So we have a servile sycophant at the helm now. I belong to the old school of journalism and have old – fashioned values. The emasculation of the editor in this manner and elevation of a management acolyte is totally unacceptable. From a management perspective Mr. Wickramasuriya and Mr. Rajapakse would opine that having invested millions of rupees in the venture they retain the right of deciding how they run the paper they have acquired. They can support the government unconditionally, do a hatchet job on the opposition, black out all adverse news stories and run only sunshine stories, humiliate the editor so that he would resign on his own and promote toadies who would suck up to them. If anyone points out that such a course could erode credibility and eventually cause a decline in sales their answer could very well be “it’s our money stupid!” They would not be wrong in their minds to make such an assertion.
On the other hand those of us who do not agree with this position have only two valid options. One is to accept the change and be subservient to the new management’s dictates while the other is not to accept this change and depart voluntarily. Accepting this flagrant injustice and arrogant use of newly acquired power is an unpalatable option for me. To go along with the newspaper after its Editor being treated so shabbily would be tantamount to accepting and endorsing injustice and arrogance abuse of power. In this dark cloud hovering in our journalistic skies there was one , visible silver lining. I am impressed and inspired by the actions of two of my young colleagues.
When Lalith Alahakoon summoned an editorial meeting to inform staff of what had happened most journalists were upset and angry. Two of them tendered their resignations immediately as a mark of protest. The news editor Munza Mushtaq and chief sub – editor designate Marianne David gave a month’s notice in their resignation letters handed over on Saturday August 30th. On Monday Sep 1st they were informed that their letters were accepted and asked to vacate premises immediately.
At a time when the conduct of people like Gamini Abeywardane made me depressed over the tragic plight of journalists in Sri Lanka , the resignations of Munza and Marianne on a matter of principle, makes me hopeful that all is not lost for the tribe of scribes in Sri Lanka. I am very proud of these two young colleagues of mine.
The only way that I can demonstrate my support and solidarity to them is by quitting Rivira media coroporation along with them at this juncture. I waited two days before informing you officially as September 3rd is a significant day for me. I herewith inform you officially that I would not write for Rivira media corporation.
Let me conclude by referring nostalgically to “The Nation” that I joined last September and “The Nation” that I leave this September. When my first article appeared in “The Nation” of September 9th 2007 Krishantha Cooray was CEO, Lalith Alahakoon was Editor and Keith Noyahr Associate editor. Marianne David was subbing my copy.The sun was shining! When my last article appeared today in “The Bottom Line” of September 3rd 2008 Krishantha is no more the CEO; Lalith has been devalued as editor; Keith has left the Country and Marianne has resigned. It’s darkness at Noon!
It was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who observed that one cannot step into the same river twice and that the river you are in was not the same one you stepped into earlier. Yes, “The Nation” that I stepped into last year is not “The Nation” that I am in right now. The river has changed even while I was in it. It is time then to step out of the changed river!!
With Best Regards