Political interference in World Cup coverage: Derana FM snaffles audio rights

Dinouk Coloumbage in Sunday Leader, 13 Feb 2011

 Thilanga Sumathipala

As excitement grows for the World Cup which is due to commence in six days time, all the media outlets in the country are gearing up to bring the matches ‘exclusively’ to their faithful audiences. In a strange turn of events Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, traditional radio broadcasters of international sporting events, has missed out on acquiring the broadcasting rights for this showpiece. In its place Derana FM has been awarded it.
The process of awarding the broadcasting rights for the World Cup to all countries interested was handled by an Indian media company, IMG Media. From Sri Lanka, only two bidders emerged, Derana FM and SLBC. Derana FM was successful in its bid and so has replaced SLBC as the radio broadcasters for the Cricket World Cup 2011.
However, this is not a simple ‘changing of the guard’ but rather another example of political prowess overturning a simple process of two companies bidding for the rights. Former SLBC employee Bandula Saman Wathuregama, played an integral part in securing the rights for Derana FM. Wathuregama had been sacked from SLBC when it was revealed that both his education qualifications and his birth certificates were false. His close relationship with SLBC Chairman, Hudson Samarasinghe, allowed him to avoid criminal prosecution.
SLBC regulations prevent the corporation from paying the project an amount in excess of 10% of its earnings from the respective project. This meant that Wathuregama, who is aware of such regulations, was able to notify Derana FM as to the amount which SLBC would be bidding for the broadcast rights.
The Sunday Leader spoke to an unnamed official at SLBC for further clarification on the issue. The official alleged that Wathuregama had “in effect stolen the rights from SLBC; he is guilty of corporate espionage.” However, the official further stated that SLBC was aware of Wathuregama’s role with Derana in securing these rights but were helpless to prevent it. He explained that despite a court order issued in 2009, ensuring that media outlets had to seek approval from the SLBC when broadcasting an international event, it was not adhered to during the bidding process.
He explained that had Derana FM sought approval, SLBC would have agreed on the basis that Wathuregama would not be involved. The Sunday Leader asked the official as to what role SLBC Chairman, Hudson Samarasinghe, played in this incident. The official speculated that despite Wathuregama’s information they would have still required access to the Corporation’s accounts. He refused to elaborate any further.
He alleged that Samarasinghe along with Parliamentarian Thilanga Sumathipala and Media Ministry Secretary W.B. Ganegala all stood to earn in excess of Rs. 10 million through advertising if Derana was awarded the rights. He explained that their roles in the bidding process entitled them to the profits. He stated that had SLBC been awarded the rights a tighter control would have been implemented on the funds and such profits could not be made. “Despite the amount Derana FM paid to secure the rights, all three of them stand to make a profit through advertising.” When asked as to why this matter was not taken up with either the Media Ministry or the Sports Ministry he explained that neither ministry was willing to get involved.
The Sunday Leader spoke to Sujeewa Wijesekara, an employee of Derana FM. He explained that the accusations made against Derana and all those involved are ‘unfounded.’ He stated that the bidding process was legal and made to an independent firm. “This ensures that such accusations of illegal tenders would be baseless.”
We asked him as to what role Bandula Saman Wathuregama played in the bidding process. He responded that Wathuregama “acted in an advisory manner as he has had experience in such processes during his time at SLBC.” Wijesekara refused to comment on whether Wathuregama’s involvement was in fact a case of conflict of interest. The Sunday Leader further asked Sujeewa as to the role Sumathipala played in the bidding process; he denied that the Parliamentarian had any part to play in the bidding process or with Derana FM. When asked as to whether Derana FM would be able to provide uninterrupted service island wide, Wijesekara confidently said yes. “We are in the process of upgrading our systems to ensure this.”
The Sunday Leader contacted Parliamentarian Thilanga Sumathipala for a comment on the allegations levelled at him. He denied having had any role to play in the bidding process. He went on to explain that “SLBC and Derana FM presented their bids to IMG media, who then made the decision separate of any government influence. Derana FM made a higher bid and so was successful.”
He added that following the bidding process, SLBC continued to attempt to use the government to secure the rights. We asked him as to why Derana had obtained a court order preventing SLBC from broadcasting match commentaries. Sumathipala explained that “SLBC continued to take advertising bids which would have helped them make a substantial profit, despite not having the rights for the World Cup. This meant that Derana FM was not receiving any advertising and so they were forced to.”
Thilanga Sumathipala went on to criticise SLBC for having not ensured that they received the broadcast rights, similar to the way Rupavahini had done so for television. Sumathipala continued to categorically deny the allegations levelled against him claiming that he played no part whatsoever in the process. When asked as to what role Wathuregama played, he denied having any knowledge.    Repeated attempts by The Sunday Leader to contact the Media Ministry for a comment proved futile.

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