Sri Lanka: Editor sacked; NfR expresses shock and dismay

(see comment below) 

NfR Sri Lanka, a network of Sri Lankan journalists and human rights defenders express its shock and dismay on the sacking of Ceylon Today editor Mr. Lalith Alahakoon. Mr. Alahakoon is a senior journalist who has edited number of English dailies in Sri Lanka. He was sacked form the Ceylon Today newspaper on 14 June 2012.

 Ceylon Today’, published by Ceylon Newspapers owned by opposition parliamentarian and business tycoon Tiran Alles. He represents the Democratic National Alliance, which is led by defected presidential candidate and former army commander General Sarath Fonseka.

 According to reliable reports Mr. Alahakoon has been sacked for not obeying unethical orders form the management.  According to media reports the reason given for Mr. Alahakoon’s removal is that he had refused to publish certain politically biased news stories, published by the sister newspaper ‘Mawbima’, in the English newspaper.

Editorial freedom is an accepted media practice in ethical journalism. Editors have the right to decide on the content of the newspaper without any interference of the management. To fulfill the people’s right to information on which freedom of expression rests, the management and the editorial of any news media needs clearly define separate roles. The relation ship between the two entities should be at ‘hands length’ so that they are protected from each others’ undue influences. 

In Sri Lanka today not only the repression by the state but also unethical interferences by the owners/ management impose a debilitating effect on freedom of the press.

Removal of Mr. Lalith Alahakoon from the editorship of the Ceylon and sacking him form the Ceylon Today editorial staff is a severe blow to independence journalism in Sri Lanka.  NfR joins hands with all those who oppose this un- democratic and arbitrary action by the management of the Ceylon News Papers.

Steering Committee, NfR Sri Lanka

Steering committee : Kshama Ranawana ( Canada) Lionel Bopage ( Australia), Nadarasa Sarawanan (Norway), Nadarajah Kuruparan(UK) Padmi Liyanage (Germany), Raveendran Pradeepan (France), Rudhramoorthy Cheran (Canada), Saman Wagaarachchi ( USA), Sunanda Deshapriya ( Switzerland)

Commnet received form Media activist in Sri Lanka

I am an admirer and supporter of your campaign. However, I must make two comments with regard to your Press Release re the apparent sacking of Lalith Alahakoon (who is an old colleague and friend of mine) from Ceylon Today (CT).

 1) Inaccurate information:- 

1.a.) ‘Sacking’:  The details regarding the departure of Lalith and several others from the Ceylon Today are yet unclear. I am not clear whether Lalith was actually sacked or tricked into believing he was being sacked and, therefore, departed. 

1.b.) ‘Editor’ :  Lalith was NOT the ‘Editor’ of the CT newspaper. He was Director – Editorial and a member of the CT Board of Directors. The Editor of CT is Hana Ibrahim, who remains in her post. 

 2) ‘Editorial Freedom’: as a journalist of some 30+ experience, a student of  the mass media and a teacher of journalism, I fail to see the relevance of the concept of ‘Editorial Freedom’ to this particular incident. Indeed I fail to see the relevance of that very abstract concept of Editorial Freedom to the concrete issue of employment of a journalist. At its best, ‘Editorial Freedom’ is a vague concept and, as far as I know, is not something that can be applied in any determinate way to the day-to-day practices of the media industry.  Of course, any attempt to compel an employee (not just a journalist) to break the law or betray confidences or any such unethical activity must be resisted and condemned. But this is very specific and relates to specific laws and ethical values and has nothing to do with the vague concept of ‘editorial freedom’.

 I have the impression that Lalith has fallen victim to unfair and un-ethical (and vicious) personnel management practices by the CT. That they employed trickery and undue pressure to push Lalith out of his influential position in the CT due to differences between him and the CT management in the area of editorial policy seems clear. From my incomplete understanding of the affair, I am not sure what exactly the editorial policy issue was. However, from a ‘rights’ point of view, I, and other locally based activists are endeavouring to obtain details of the unfair labour practices that seem to have been employed by CT in expelling Lalith and colleagues. We will act accordingly. The difference of views on editorial policy cannot be equated with the ‘rights’ of an employment of a journalist. In my own extensive professional experience I have NEVER worked in any newspaper establishment in my whole career in which I have been fully in agreement with the newspaper’s owner’s editorial policies. Indeed, that is why I, too, have been either summarily removed or have voluntarily resigned from some professional positions I have held in my career which began in 1978. Given my understanding of the nature of modern journalism and the media industry, I do NOT expect to see the vague concept of ‘editorial freedom’ applied in any concrete/specific form in any part of the industry or profession. Even if the journalists themselves own and manage a newspaper, editorial policy cannot be “free” but will have to be the subject of a collective or consensual agreement of the owning journalists – even in such a scenario it is obvious that there cannot be any editorial ‘freedom’ practised by either an individual journalist or section of journalists in that establishment.

 Given his extensive professional skills and experience and stature, Lalith’s departure from CT is a big loss to the media industry in SL. I was also dismayed by Lalith’s abrupt departure. I am glad that your campaign has taken up his case and I hope that you will pursue it in accordance with its actual contours.

The statement released by Lalith Alahakoon

Sequence of events relating to editorial crisis at ‘Ceylon Today’ newspaper

By Lalith Allahakkoon
This is the full text of a public statement issued to the media by Lalith Allahakkoon the Editor in Chief and Editorial Director of “Ceylon Today”about recent events that have caused an Editorial crisis in the English newspaper published in Colombo

1. At around 7 p.m. on the night of Wednesday June 13, Executive Director of Ceylon Newspapers Mr. Dushyantha Basnayake summoned me to his office and said there were several issues to be discussed. Firstly, he informed me that the management had decided to terminate the employment of Senior Cartoonist at Ceylon Today Wasantha Siriwardane.

I informed him that while I was satisfied with his performance, if the management was not happy with him and they wished to discontinue him, he should firstly be warned in writing to give him an opportunity to rectify matters.

2. Subsequently Mr. Basnayake informed me that the management had decided to ask me to leave due to several reasons –
(a) My alleged association with Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP –(with whom I informed him I have not even had a conversation in the past year, but even if I was, as a journalist and an editor I do not see how this would constitute a wrongdoing)
(b) that I failed to greet Chairman Tiran Alles at a reception held at the Indian High Commissioner’s residence in Colombo and
(c) I failed to publish the unsubstantiated lead story by the Mawbima saying there would be a presidential election in 2013 and contradicted the story the next day. However on this point I clarified that the Ceylon Today story was related to the provincial council elections and not to the presidential elections. I also informed him that in any case the Mawbima lead story was inaccurate and had no legal basis in my opinion. In my experience, a newspaper cannot publish based on the sensational impact of a story alone, but must adhere to certain ethic codes and accuracy.

3. Mr. Basnayake then informed me that my editorial policy and the management’s editorial policy do not tally. I reminded him that when this newspaper was begun, Chairman Tiran Alles said Ceylon Today would be an independent and non-partisan newspaper – and even told the editorial team that they would not be required to publish stories praising him. However as time progressed, and subsequent to everything that has happened, the impression created is that the Chairman’s intention was to use me and my editorial team to specifically target and attack his political opponents. I informed Mr. Basnayake that as an editor I could not compromise on journalistic ethics and editorial independence as spelled out by the company at the outset of this project. If there was dissatisfaction with my performance, up to June 13, the management had not indicated this to me in writing or in any other way.

4. Mr. Basnayake then informed me that the management wanted me to leave. I requested the termination notice in writing.

5. On the morning of Thursday June 14, members of the Ceylon Today staff informed me that Ms.Hana Ibrahim had summoned an editorial meeting and announced that the management had asked me to leave. She requested the staff to extend their support to her to publish Ceylon Today. She told the editorial staff that they must help her to carry forward my ideas in my absence.

6. A few hours later, Mr. Basnayake summoned a meeting of Ceylon Today Department Heads and informed them that the management had made the decision to terminate me because I was not following the editorial policy line the management wanted. Mr. Basnayake requested the heads of department to lend their support to Ms. Ibrahim. Subsequently Mr. Basnayake held private meetings with senior editors Wilson Gnanadass and Dharisha Bastians to convince them to remain at Ceylon Today, urging them that despite my removal, they should continue to work at the newspaper.

7. On June 14 when I reported to work and made several telephone calls to Mr. Basnayake informing him that since I had not been served with the letter of termination so far, I had been compelled to report to work. He told me repeatedly that the letter would arrive within an hour, 30 minutes etc.

8. Finally Mr. Basnayake asked me to return to my residence and said that he would deliver the letter to my residence.

9. . Following announcements by Ms. Hana Ibrahim and subsequently the management (Mr. Basnayake) that I had been terminated and Ms. Ibrahim would be tasked with overseeing Ceylon Today operations, four senior journalists at the newspaper tendered their resignations to Ms. Ibrahim in protest. They were Deputy Editors Wilson Gnanadass and Dharisha Bastians, and senior journalists Rasika Jayakody and Dinidu De Alwis. They informed Ms. Ibrahim that they disagreed with the management decision to summarily dismiss me for trying to maintain editorial independence that was promised by the management when the newspaper commenced publication.

10 I made several telephone calls to him on June 15, and yet again Mr. Basnayake promised to get back to me in an hour. Since that time, he has ceased to respond to my telephone calls.

11. On Saturday (June 16) I reported to work in order to coordinate the Sunday newspaper. When I entered my office, I found it locked. The security officers subsequently unlocked the door but when I entered and attempted to commence work, I found that my official Computer had been deactivated and I no longer was able to access my machine.
Lalith Allahakkoon
Director / Editor in Chief
Ceylon Today
June 17, 2012

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