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The S-Coup That Never Was

Jul 31, 2010 3:30:26 PM - thesundayleader.lk

The Journalism Awards for Excellence 2009, conducted by the Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka in association with the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), ended last Tuesday, July 27 at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Despite these two supposedly august bodies insisting on transparency and accountability from the government, opposition and everybody who is an anybody related to the other in this country, the awards ceremony like all the previous are conducted with little or no transparency let alone accountability.

Journalists who apply for awards in the different categories are not even told by whom they will be judged other than it will be an “independent panel of respected persons.” And there lies the misnomer.  They certainly are independent but apparently clueless of all norms, ethics and principles by which journalists of any caliber function in this country.

How else can one explain the ‘Scoop Of The Year’ award which went for the first time ever to a ‘news desk’ at The Sunday Times for apparently having published a series of articles over a period of one year – articles which were NOT the ‘single best exclusive report for the year’ that had national implications.  Which is the criteria, in black and white, put down by the Editor’s Guild and the SLPI themselves for judges to consider entries.

This is what the ‘Journalism Awards for Excellence 2009 Categories of Awards and Criteria’ clearly states in relation to ‘SCOOP OF THE YEAR.’ Quote “This category is for the journalist or team of journalists who have published the SINGLE BEST exclusive report for the year that had national implications. Please submit a copy of THE story and supporting statement.” Unquote.

The Sunday Leader had two exclusive scoops last year – both of which were submitted for consideration for an award.  One was for having secured and exclusively published the list of Golden Key depositors – names of people who had invested millions upon millions of rupees for which the entire country was agog to learn who they were. Our second scoop published on December 13 last year was the explosive and exclusive White Flag story. Which not only was the story of the year, which the whole country is talking about including half the world but had huge national implications. Both these stories, The White Flag and the Golden Key Depositors List had massive national implications and both cases went before court.

But 12 judges who sat on a panel to choose the Scoop Of The Year instead decided to give this award to The Sunday Times news desk for a series of articles published over one year which included ‘the JVP having invited Sarath Fonseka to be their common candidate’ and ‘Fonseka having accepted.’ Articles which every single newspaper in this country carried including The Sunday Leader, ad nauseam for the better half of last year. These articles were showcased in a slide show on the night of the awards and Compere Kumar de Silva announced that the award for scoop of the year went to The Sunday Times news desk for ‘consistent reporting on a series of issues throughout the year 2009.’

Not only then does The Sunday Times news desk not conform to the rules and regulations of this particular category of award but they most certainly did not qualify or deserve to receive the award.  I know, The Sunday Times may now retreat, indulge in some finger-pointing and label us “Sour Grapes.”  But do bear with us. There is more to this than meets the eye.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 17 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let’s face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful.

And that is exactly what happened on this particular occasion. When I voiced my concerns to the judges they were all unanimous in requesting me to refrain from naming them. They all whispered they were speaking to me “confidentially.”  None of them obviously have the courage of their convictions and so are unable to stand tall and explain why they decided unanimously to ignore the criteria laid down for which the award for ‘Scoop Of The Year’  should have been decided and chosen.  Of course as judges they have the right to ask to not be named.

However there has to be an individual or individuals who are competent enough to respond to concerns and queries from the applicants.  Neither Manik de Silva, President of the Editor’s Guild nor Sukumar Rockwood, Convenor of the entire event nor Kumar Nadeson, Chairman of the SLPI who remained unavailable for comment appear to be of a mindset to lobby the judges in making a correction. We are not asserting that the award should, without condition, have come to The Sunday Leader. If indeed there was another scoop out there worthy of recognition, let the best one win.

But in this case the judges were clearly not only confused with relation to the criteria which they obviously never read but were at serious cross-purposes with each other, the SLPI and the Editors Guild.
Lalith Alahakoon, Consultant Editor for the Nation/Rivira newspapers was  one of the 12 judges who also requested anonymity but who I will risk my friendship with to place on record (given the seriousness of this issue) insisted that the judges unanimously decided to give this particular award to The Sunday Times for having published a “scoop” which we presume given by what Alahakoon told us was carried in The Sunday Times of October 18, 2009 which we reproduce below.

And amidst these mixed signals, with one judge not knowing what the other was doing and the SLPI and the Editors Guild too at cross purposes, the charming and affable Anthony David – News Editor for The Sunday Times was forced – nay compelled perhaps – to swallow his self-respect and walk up  last Tuesday night and accept an award for a story he nor his news desk ever wrote. That is if we are to go by what one judge insists was the case — Lalith Alahakoon.

Alahakoon meanwhile insists he has “no idea” why at the awards ceremony  the scoop of the year was announced and given to a news desk for having published “a series of articles consistently throughout last year.” “They were given the award for the Indian Coup story,” Alahakoon insists.

But the reality is that no less than three different articles were displayed for the benefit of the audience present — showcasing the justification of how and why The Sunday Times news desk were chosen for this particular award.

But the man who indeed takes the cake (with apologies to our readers for the use of a hackneyed phrase) is none other than the Chairman of the Judging Committee, Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam. This much lauded Professor Emeritus whose CV claims he holds a diploma from the School of Journalism in London and was a prolific writer to the national press in the 1960s and ‘70s told me when questioned on how this award was judged,  quote, “if an award was given for the White Flag story it may have been sub judice – since it is before the courts — while the publishing of the Golden Key list of depositors was no scoop as the other newspapers probably did not even attempt to get the list and do so for concern surrounding space constraints.” Unquote. At this point I did not know whether to laugh or weep at the sheer idiosyncrasy of it all.

Here was a man – Chairman of the Judging Committee – voicing an utterly idiotic and inane justification for not being able to recognise a scoop when two were staring him in the face! That apart, his sentiments voiced to The Sunday Leader giving reason for not awarding this newspaper the Scoop Of The Year Award fell nothing short of the ridiculous.

Kariyawasam had clearly failed to read the small print in black and white which in simple English stipulates the rules and regulations by which one should apply, qualify and be chosen for this award.
When I read out the criteria to him he responded, “Are you sure?  Does it not say for stories?”
No sir, It does not! A newspaper scoop in plain English means one exclusive story which had national implications. It is as simple as that. And if the Chairman of the Judging Committee no less did not understand that – we rest our case. One piece of advice. Next time around don’t waste all our time.

India Assures Lanka Of Safeguarding Democracy

By Our Diplomatic Editor

Sri Lanka informally sounded India on Thursday over reports of a possibility of a destabilization of the democratic system, The Sunday Times learns. Such fears have arisen due to prevailing tensions within the defence establishment.

The subject had come up for discussion during a conversation between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and outgoing Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Alok Prasad. Following apprehensions expressed by President Rajapaksa, Mr. Prasad is learnt to have briefed Govt. leaders in New Delhi.

Diplomatic sources in Colombo said the Indian Government’s position was that it would offer all help under such circumstances to a democratically-elected Government. This is on the same basis India sent troops to the Maldives in the wake of an attack in Male by armed members of PLOTE, then a separatist group, on the invitation of the Maldivian President.

Indian troops landed in Male and helped the National Security Service there to restore order.

Obviously The Sunday Times “scoop” of October 18, 2009 was based on the article published online on October 15, three days before by UKTamilNews.com. We reproduce same:

Military Coup In Sri Lanka Soon Says India! By Admin On Oct.15, 2009, Under Tamil Eelam ‘Military Coup In Sri Lanka’ Soon Says India!
Diplomatic sources revealed that former Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Alok Prasad had warned of a conspiracy to launch a military coup in Sri Lanka and had called on Indian officials to be prepared for such an eventuality during a discussion held yesterday (14) evening.
Although a new Indian High Commissioner has been appointed to Sri Lanka, Alok Prasad continues to stay in Colombo in order to look after his business interests in the country. Alok Prasad is a close business associate of Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa and the following warning to the Indian officials has been made by him following a Presidential directive.