June 27, 2012
The Editor of the Ceylon Today newspaper Hana Ibrahim has hot out at the allegations raised over the termination of the service of Director Editorial and Editor-in-Chief, Lalith Allahakkoon and the subsequent resignation of four other journalists recently.
In an Editorial, a cop of which was emailed to the Colombo Gazette by the newspaper, Ibrahim said that there had been round condemnation and prompt judgment delivered by the media fraternity and others based on one-sided information following the incident.
The Editorial said:
The media coverage of the Ceylon Today events has been enlightening and perhaps makes a good case study as to how the mainstream and alternate media cover freedom of expression issues in Sri Lanka.
It is important to state at the very outset that Director Editorial and Editor-in-Chief, Lalith Allahakkoon, was not ‘sacked,’ despite the media frenzy and the four ex-staffers crying foul. He remains employed as is Deputy Editor Wasantha Siriwardena, whose Sunday cartoon is published on the same page.
Then there is the matter of four resignations ‘in protest of such sacking.’ The touted reason for the collective resignations was the alleged undermining of editorial independence in the alleged termination of Allahakkoon’s services. Suffice to say that their conduct within the editorial contributed to compartmentalizing the editorial, making it impossible to continue operations with their stranglehold. The management has warned one of them repeatedly on incompetence and creating divisions and during the final round of warnings (to three of the four resigned journalists), they were verbally informed about an internal inquiry.
It has been the observation, both of the management and the editorial staff that those who resigned ‘on matters of principle’ displayed very little of core journalistic values during their tenure. There was a string of verbal complaints and a couple of written complaints about their editorial conduct ranging from unethical journalism to abuse of power.
They were busy dividing the editorial, undermining the very editorial independence they claim to have upheld through their dramatic exists. The journalists at Ceylon Today have heaved a collective sigh of relief after the repressive management of the editorial in furtherance of individual career interests whilst compromising industry standards, ethics and fair reporting. In short, what Ceylon Today experienced for the past eight months was nothing but a clear case of ‘editorial capture’ by this small group.
Editorial independence means the freedom of editors to make decisions without the interference from the owners of a media establishment. If the newspaper management is at fault, it would be indeed for allowing a few to dictate terms to the detriment of the institution and its staff. The resignations were announced just ahead of internal inquiries, which were to be initiated against them on a number of issues.
To define editorial independence would be indeed difficult, as it is a nuanced concept which also differs from culture to culture. It is gratifying to find the resigned journalists making attempt, despite having practiced editorial capture.
The degree of editorial independence would also differ from country to country. It is also about the institutional culture, which is largely the making of journalists than managements. It is an ideal state all media organizations work towards. It is very much a journey and one worth fighting for. Indeed, there was editorial mismanagement by the summoned four, hence verbal warnings issued to the Director Editorial, by the company’s Executive Director.
But, to infer that the resignations were linked to the issue of editorial independence by a group which shamelessly practiced editorial capture is indeed an argument so rich, it warrants a detailed explanation to the reading public as to what Ceylon Today newspaper and its staff had to endure for months with sabotaging Judases within.
Ceylon Today is surprised by a few facts raised by its Director Editorial Lalith Allahakkoon in a widely published statement. In an 11-point note attributed to Allahakkoon, it is stated that he was axed due to his refusal to publish a story predicting a presidential election next year. This same fact, again attributed to him in another news website, reported the exact opposite. It said that the Director Editorial was never under pressure to publish the said story. We assume it can be only one of the two versions.
The management position is that the veteran journalist was severely warned on issues of editorial management and policy. It has been the newspaper’s stance to be non-partisan in the expression of its views.
Though claiming to be victims of such enforced bias, the journalists, who resigned in protest were themselves often seen promoting select politicians for reasons best known to them.
As for editorial management, there was blatant favouritism compartmentalizing of staff, ethical violations, promotion of a select few through the news pages and conflict of interest. We insist that it had never been the management policy of Ceylon Today to promote the political cause of a few politicians including Sarath Fonseka, whose name has been conveniently dragged into highlight alleged ‘imposition of the management’s political views.’ If asked at the inquiry which was to take place, the allegation of promoting Fonseka’s political cause through the news pages will not hold any water.
Contrary to what is stated in the note, the Director Editorial’s association with various politicians, including Ranil Wickremesinghe, has never been a matter of concern. In fact, it is expected that senior journalists would have a vast network of sources, a necessity in journalism. We will not deal with absurdities about Allahakkoon’s alleged refusal to attend a Buddhist religious ceremony to mark owner Tiran Alles’ birthday being a contributory factor to the alleged ‘sacking.’
Reference is also made in the 11-point note to ‘senior journalists.’ Barring Deputy Editor-News, others are certainly junior in the craft and did not carry the necessary experience to handle senior positions or to be entrusted with editorial responsibility.
Their failure at desk management bears testimony to the fact that the handpicked few were incapable of discharging desk duties. It is important to record here a proposed merit-based recruitment scheme complete with an evaluation of skills and experience was rejected by Director Editorial as being useless while insisting that ‘his team’ had the innate desk management skills. The incompetence we at Ceylon Today had to deal with could have been avoided if a transparent, merit-based recruitment process was allowed at the very outset.
It was in that light the Executive Director of Ceylon Newspapers Pvt Ltd., on June 13 severely warned Allahakkoon. He was informed the situation at Ceylon Today was unacceptable with a high degree of staff disenchantment over the editorial management by him and his handpicked team. The next day, (14 June) Allahakkoon ganged up with his clique and tried to hold the management to ransom, by instigating them to submit their resignations, and subsequently requested for a letter of termination, which was naturally not delivered, as there was no question of termination.
Subsequently, the Executive Director informed all heads of departments to extend their support to the newspaper’s editor Hana Ibrahim to handle the operational aspects of the newspaper. In turn, Ibrahim requested for support from all editorial staff including those who have resigned. As claimed in the 11-point note, there were no private meetings with the resigned desk heads to convince them to remain. Three out of four have been warned and informed of disciplinary inquiries that are to be initiated in the immediate future.
It is incorrect to state that Ibrahim, the editor of the newspaper, received resignations by the two deputy editors. They, like other staff members, were encouraged to stay back and the letters were left on Ibrahim’s desk.
As stated, on 16 June, Allahakkoon’s room was not locked on purpose. All cubicles are locked at night. This was the practice though he has chosen to highlight this as a unique occurrence. The computer was also not dismantled, but was shut down following a server failure and system shut down, experienced at Ceylon Newspapers (Ceylon Today and Mawbima) on 14 June.
During the past week, we at Ceylon Today witnessed the level of manipulation of a dejected few, clamouring for some publicity under the guise of fighting for editorial independence. We have information to support how some of the so-called websites dedicated to the promotion of media rights do not publish comments by site visitors with views contrary to the self-proclaimed promoters of media rights.
While blaming us for prevailing upon the Free Media Movement (FMM) to prevent the issuing of a statement, yet another inaccuracy given that the FMM did issue a statement, we are aware that local and international media organizations are being bombarded with requests for statements in support of them. We will not be surprised to witness bad motive being attributed to those who may not join their bandwagon and accuse Ceylon Today of alleged influence-pedalling.
To our surprise as well as dismay, we have witnessed hearsay being published, tweets that lacked credible information bordering on mere gossip and the ethical requirement to ‘hear both sides’ simply violated. We saw very little attempt being made to obtain verified information and the publication of blatant untruths. It is too tedious and unnecessary even to respond to them individually.
Statements have sprung out, referring not only to the alleged summary dismissal of Director Editorial Lalith Allahakkoon but also Deputy Editor Wasantha Siriwardene. The former has been reporting to work except on two occasions while the latter continues to serve in the same capacity at Ceylon Today. We insist the biased and damaging coverage of the Ceylon Today story remains a classic case study on unethical journalism.
It is not our practice to wash dirty linen in public. There is also no wish to dabble in counterattacks despite the media blitz unleashed upon the newspaper by an ill-motivated few and the sense of drama associated with it. The issues regarding which journalists and Director Editorial had to be warned was an administrative matter connected to mismanagement of the editorial. It was immediately presented with layers of lies and half truths for public consumption by them, with the liberal dressing of editorial independence.
Ceylon Today therefore considers it important to place facts before the public. We also consider it sufficient to have our say just once and desist from responding to individual statements or to continuously respond to a group piqued by the loss of their glorified status in lording over others.
Upon learning that Director Editorial was severely warned about his management mishaps, one of the four journalists who resigned their posts was openly seen campaigning among others to tender their resignations.
However, Allahakkoon reported to work on 16 June and informed the News Desk he was back. He returned on 18 June and informed the News Desk he was in ‘charge’ and ‘very much in control’ and instructed one of the news editors to write the editorial.
The inquiries that were to be initiated against the four journalists were based on the violation of the ethical and professional media culture they now speak of, which were blatantly violated. With editorial capture, there was no equity, transparency, team spirit and merit-based career advancement. They were aware that it was only a matter of time for the inquiries to commence causing them to lose face.
There is also an interesting political twist those who vacated their posts have strived to mention – a management requirement of partisan news coverage. Linking owner Tiran Alles’ political affiliation to former Army Commander and common opposition presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka has been a convenient stick used by the self-proclaimed and righteous media organizations, activists and practitioners to beat Ceylon Today with. It can be clearly said that from the very outset, all staff were informed the newspaper will be independent and free of any political bias. It will not be possible for the detractors, despite the owner’s political affiliations, to prove otherwise.
Alles is not the first politician to own a media organization in Sri Lanka, and certainly will not be the last. The important thing would be to sincerely evaluate the editorial content without preconceived notions and to understand that it is no small miracle that despite sabotage, the newspaper was published on time and continues unaffected by the departures of mediocre practitioners, who held the newspaper hostage.
The two Deputy Editors who resigned have been warned about serious weaknesses in desk management by the Executive Director and for attempts to divide the editorial with a degree of success. One of the two reporters was also warned about ethical deficiencies while disciplinary action was to be initiated shortly.
We place these issues before the public, which we still consider to be administrative matters within an organization and therefore internal. We publish our version of the events that took place with the firm belief that the general public has a right to accurate information, sadly denied to them by the one-sided coverage and the theatrics of the four resigned journalists basking in this media blitz, while parading as defenders of editorial independence.
We present our side of the story in the fervent hope that the readers will, finally be able to make up their minds about the imbroglio with information from both sides. There had been a surprising amount of judgment and vilification to prevent the seamy side of this story from emerging. It was not just the Ceylon Today management’s observation, but mostly of the editorial that their collective operational style was detrimental to the interest of not just the institution and their colleagues, but also to the industry we are proud to be a part of.
If there was any need to uphold editorial independence, then the editorial had to be indeed made independent, not a toy in the hands of a small clique. Ideally, there should not have been a ‘take over’ by one camp suppressing others and building a power block for themselves to the exclusion of all other staff members. There also should have been no blatant favouritism, beat reporters being suppressed and the best of stories snatched by those greedy for bylines. That did not augur well for editorial independence and certainly merited an internal inquiry.
Championing editorial independence
Irrespective of this grand standing by disgruntled ex-employees, it would have been much appreciated if the said media organizations and media workers had given ear to both sides. It is our experience that we had to remind the self-proclaimed defenders of media freedom to have their ethics straightened. It has been an absorbing learning experience that both individuals and organizations acted based on hearsay and published uncorroborated facts – all in the name of editorial independence.
For having operated a small clique undermining all others including the editor and the other desk heads, violating the line of reporting and institutional protocol, it is dramatic yet hilarious to find this group take up matters of editorial independence or media rights.
The four journalists who are now carrying a campaign against the newspaper championing the cause of editorial freedom, this country and the media industry would well remember to have not spoken in defence of rights issues before. Their industry worth is equally poor. We dismiss their rants with the contempt they deserve, for having divided an editorial and practiced unethical journalism.
As they themselves claimed in their joint resignation letter, this newspaper was launched with the hope of upholding professional journalism. Indeed they have failed to contribute to Ceylon Today to achieve exactly that. Ceylon Today remains committed to principled and professional journalism with a team that is spirited and able to deliver.
Following are the issues that were to be dealt with during an internal inquiry to be initiated against several staff members
Abuse of authority
A clear division was created between the features and news desks to the detriment of the newspaper. Territories were marked in a manner that discouraged staff from contributing to all sections of the newspaper.
A faction within the newspaper came to control the news desk and subsequently, the entire newspaper, undermining the editor and other appointed desk heads.
Assignments were distributed without the knowledge of the editor or desk heads.
Beat reporters were undermined with the four ex-staffers enjoying a monopoly over content management undermining others, including the duly appointed news editors.
Journalists have been abused and reduced to tears by desk editors using language unacceptable within a professional setting. Several trainees left citing ‘emotional abuse’ as the reason for quitting. It had become editorial practice to openly insult those who were not members of a ‘clique’ executing control over the editorial and the decision-makers.
One news editor verbally complained to the Director Editorial when she was called a b—- by her immediate supervisor in the presence of others. The matter was not pursued and no inquiry was held. The senior staff member was not issued a warning or explanation called.
Television advertising was selectively carried out on specific stories written by the identified group.
Blatant favouritism was practiced in allocating beats, assigning stories and having a say over content.
Repeated complaints were received from fellow staff members about unfair treatment meted out to them. This practice proved highly detrimental with only certain journalists being encouraged to travel outstation on assignment and being published, in effect demoralizing other staff members.
Despite news editors being appointed for the efficient and smooth functioning of the newspaper, the four resigned journalists enjoyed a monopoly that was approved by Director Editorial.
In selecting newspaper priorities, often the editor was unaware or not consulted.
Misuse of office property
On several occasions, office vehicles were used to go on lengthy assignments following which reports for publication were not produced or the output was unsatisfactory when compared with the investment made.
Some of the assignments were trips under the guise of assignments and were to be checked for good financial practice at the time of collective resignations.
Incompetence in desk management
Some of the top positions were given to those without the required level of experience and expertise and a merit-based recruitment scheme was opposed by Director Editorial as being unnecessary.
There were repeated delays in pages and when questioned, Deputy Editor-Features informed the editor that she did not know how to guide reporters on picking and writing stories. She also claimed that she was unable to have control over deadlines.
Desk editors did not train junior staff or offer guidelines on ethical and professional reporting.
Promotion of a select number of politicians through news coverage
A few handpicked politicians were promoted through the news pages in blatant violation of the editorial policy of non-partisan coverage. This issue has been repeatedly raised and the Director Editorial verbally warned to desist from such unethical promotion of a select few.
Biased coverage of foreign affairs
The beat was considered the sacred preserve of a couple of individuals and was used to further interests of one section of the foreign ministry week after the other.
Individuals were targeted and attacked including veteran diplomats who have in writing, complained to the newspaper.
Conflict of interest
Certain beat coverages were treated as the exclusive preserve, undermining the assigned beat reporter, where one’s spouse was employed. It has been pointed out that furthering the interest of one group in furtherance of personal gain should not be allowed to continue, but this was not heeded to the detriment of the newspaper. Readers have complained about this blatant violation of ethics by using the newspaper to further personal career goals.
Monopoly over content
Continuous complaints have been received from the Features Desk staff that the desk head enjoyed a monopoly over outstation assignments. Despite repeated requests, they were not allowed to travel, but were desk-bound.
When assigned beat reporters were there, for important stories, the small group enjoying operational control would impose themselves and take over good stories. This practice was allowed to continue demoralizing beat reporters and overall, was a bad precedence.
While assigned news reporters were covering Parliament, reports on proceedings were unethically produced by desk-bound editors violating privileges of Parliament (those who report on parliamentary proceedings have to be present in the media gallery).
Just days before resignation, one journalist telephoned all his embassy contacts informing them not to share information with the Ceylon Today beat reporter, in the presence of all news editors.
Interviews were conducted with select individuals by a select group of journalists. Others were discouraged from seeking interviews or conducting them.
Deputy Editor-Features imposed herself on the two assigned reporters as ‘observer’ during an interview with Sarath Fonseka subsequent to his release. She later demanded a byline on the story and when refused, did not produce her regular political column in protest. She also did not inform the editor of her decision not to write.
On a number of occasions, there had been reproduction of news stories with individual bylines without journalists working on it. Several verbal complaints and one written complaint were received in this regard. Media releases and web content were republished as original work. When raised, Director Editorial discarded it as a non-issue.
Two of the four resigned had a reputation within the organization for lending bylines to media releases and using directly translated online content. Ceylon Today has considerable evidence and complaints by others in support of this.
Desk management was carried out in violation of institutional procedures.
It is the management’s observation that after months of operation, though appointed deputy editors, their desk management skills including the management of allocated staff, was extremely poor.
Deputy Editor-News was not present during recast causing the news editors to bear the entire weight. It has been reported that choir practices and other personal reasons often overrode institutional interest.
A particular news editor was on night duty, was routinely made to handle the desk without any reporters being allocated. The duty roster was not changed to facilitate her even after the matter was raised with Deputy Editor-News.
Two news reporters were allowed to continuously undermine two news editors.
News editors were also overruled and reporters were re-assigned by the two said news reporters violating duty rosters and terms of employment.
The institutional procedure requires all copies for publication to be finally approved by the Chief Sub Editor. The desk was completely overlooked by Deputy Editor-Features and unedited copies were sent for direct printing. Changes were made to copies without the oversight of the sub editors in stark violation of journalistic practices.
Creating history, a co-ordinator was appointed for the Features Desk without the knowledge of the newspaper’s editor.
Chief Sub Editor was admonished and two of the news editors were repeatedly insulted in the presence of subordinates in a humiliating manner by Director Editorial.
Deputy Editor-News verbally warned two news editors that a reporter has complained against them. When confronted, there was no such complaint. The desk editors requested for a full inquiry into any such allegation but were denied the same. The said complaint was not produced.
Executive Director speaks
Executive Director of Ceylon Newspapers Pvt Ltd Dushyantha Basnayake denied all allegations made by Director Editorial, Lalith Allahakkoon over the alleged dismissal and the purported lack of editorial independence at Ceylon Today.
Basnayake states that at no time did the company inform the head of the editorial not to report to work or inform him about service termination.
He said a serious verbal warning had to be issued in the light of Allahakkoon not having provided full commitment to the newspaper and had been several times advised to improve his performance in editorial management including both content and staff.
Basnayake said it had become necessary to insist on better commitment if the newspaper to become competitive and that Allahakkoon had failed to heed such advice to the detriment of the newspaper.
The management has observed that serious divisions existed among news and feature staff, headed by two of the journalists who resigned in protest. It had been observed that such divisions were tolerated if not promoted dividing the editorial staff to tight camps. The Director Editorial was regularly away from office during working hours and it was a reflection of bad editorial management to have staff divided and process and procedure not followed.
The Executive Director denied all allegations raised by the Director Editorial and former staff over editorial independence and insisted that the company remained committed to fostering editorial independence and promote media freedom.