This is the story of four men, eleven photographs and a devious mission.
If it succeeded, Sri Lanka’s tourism would have acquired a new reputation – the only place in Asia where men and women could roam the beaches without clothes, smoking pot, consuming liquor and engaging in wild orgies. Families of local officials would have become estranged. Parents and clergy would have been enraged at the birth of a new tourism culture. It even caused ripples within the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
The controversial email poster. Above the suspects who allegedly engineered the photos being brought to courts last Saturday
It began just after the four-day beach festival (from July 30 to August 2) at Hikkaduwa or the Hikka Fest, ended. The Sri Lanka Tourist Promotion Bureau sponsored the annual event. This year, it gained added significance. With the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, there was a greater emphasis to attract more tourists to Sri Lanka, to view its natural beauty including beaches, culture, tradition and historic monuments among them.
E-mails with eleven photographs attached began flooding media offices, travel agents, airline offices, travel outfits abroad and even those at the Ministry of Tourism. Some of the photographs were from the event and depicted the fun and frolic. There were young men and women dancing , consuming liquor or parading without their clothes.
There were others where a foreigner is completely naked. The women who were with him were topless and appeared in high spirits. In one, two topless women hugged each other as they stood under the flowing water below a beachside shower.
Pics of the Hikkaduwa beach festival captured by our photojournalists
All these activities, it was claimed, were at the Hikka Fest. One newspaper published the photographs. A TV channel not only followed suit but also had a talk show. It triggered off a controversy. There were accusations that tourism authorities had gone against government policy and sponsored a beachside orgy of drinking, nudity and promoted promiscuity, that would have put even western nations to shame. It was only last week that Sweden was forced to withdraw promotional advertisements for tourism after reports that they promoted promiscuity.
It took four more weeks and considerable damage before the truth emerged. Some of the photographs, six to be precise, were fake. They were the ones that contained scenes of full and half nudity. When the Sunday Times received these e mails, our photographers using photoshop software ascertained that the nude and semi-nude photographs had been taken in 2006 and therefore we did not publish them.
The devious e-mail campaign of mixing six photographs of the event with five nude – semi nude photographs taken earlier had been carried out by three employees of the ADIC or Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC) with the help of a Tourism Ministry employee. The four have been remanded until October 6.
ADIC is a non governmental organization established in 1990 and has been working on the prevention of using narcotics.
The Sunday Times learnt a Tourism Ministry employee had initially emailed the pictures which had been taken in Dubai to one of his friends at ADIC. The fabricated email was prepared and thereafter circulated to various parties.
Among the recipients was the Deputy Minister of Tourism Faiszer Musthapha. In what seemed a further attempt to confuse matters, the email contained a photograph of M. Dileep Mudadeniya, Managing Director, Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau. A paragraph below said: “For more details: M. Dileep Mudadeniya, MD (Managing Director) Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau” giving his land phone numbers and mobile number. In addition, it also had logos of some of the sponsors.
This led the Tourism Promotion Bureau to lodge a complaint with the CID on August 19. Jeevana Fernando, Manager Procurement and Maintenance who is an engineer by profession made a detailed statement .
A team of CID detectives visited Hikkaduwa and recorded statements of those who were on duty during the tourism festival including that of the police. They found there was no evidence to suggest that there were scenes similar to those found in the photographs attached to the emails.
What detectives found at the scene of the beach festival and the backdrop in the photographs were entirely different. There was no beach shower like the one depicted in the photographs where two topless girls were taking a shower.
“We assisted the CID in the best possible way to find out the truth. We also carried out our own investigations to check if there were similar backgrounds to those in the pictures. We wanted to clear our image,” Hikkaduwa Hoteliers Association president Siri Gunawardena told the Sunday Times.
The CID had tracked down the emails and the service provider and eventually traced it to ADIC located at 40/18, Park Road Colombo 5.
Amaranath Oswald Bandarathenna, Malith Pradeep Silva and Derrick Samantha Guruge all of ADIC were arrested last week followed by the arrest of Lakmal Subasinghe, an Assistant Supplies officer at the Tourism Ministry.
“This is a serious offence. They have tried to tarnish the image of the country. Our investigators are trying to ascertain the motives of this action,” Deputy Inspector General of Police for Western Province Colombo Nimal Mediwaka told the Sunday Times.
However, the CID on Tuesday informed courts that they have called for reports about the possible involvement of the suspects in any anti-governmental organisations or activity.
The Toursim Promotion Bureau said it strongly believed the motive was to destroy the tourism industry at a time when tourist arrivals were picking up.
In May tourist arrivals had risen. In June there was an eight per cent increase compared to the corresponding period of last year. In July there was a 28 per cent increase and in August a 34 per cent increase.
“The impact was almost irreparable as the fabricated photographs not only tarnished the image of the event but also the image of the government as it was organized by the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau; a government institution,” Mr. Mudadeniya told the Sunday Times.
“It was definitely an attempt to tarnish the image of the tourism industry and the government,” he said.
“The NGO- ADIC - we find had even prior to the event gathered information and photos using hi-tech equipment in their office, so it’s clear they were all out to sabotage the event,” he alleged.
But, Pudu Sumanasekara, Executive Director of ADIC told the Sunday Times that since the first email had originated from the Tourism Ministry there should be a fair investigation about their involvement as well.
He said, that in any case the ADIC employees had used the computers in their personal capacity and the organisation had no involvement.
These events unfolded at a time when the government announced that an allocation of Rs. 700 million was needed to promote tourism.
The fabricated email disturbed many. Some of them were those in the tourist industry in Hikkaduwa.
“We were concerned about the fabricated email which nearly ruined the tourist industry in Hikkaduwa. We are happy that that there has been a breakthrough in the investigation to clear our image. We will not betray our culture to promote tourism,” Hikkaduwa Tourist Service Providers Association Sudath Lokuge told the Sunday Times.