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21st June 1998

Politics behind the porn

by Fredrica Jansz

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Shocking revelations about the behind-the-scenes goings-on which led to the scandal where Sri Lanka was recently portrayed as a destination for dirty sex. Several government leaders and agencies were involved and the Tourist Board finally pushed ahead with the disastrous project, despite repeated warnings by the Foreign Ministry

Controversy continues to rage over the steamy soft porn video 'All Inclusive - Ina's Journey Through Sri Lanka' which portrays Sri Lanka as a sex destination. This film is not the first and will definitely not be the last to be done by a foreign media group to tarnish Sri Lanka's image.

But what is ironic is that this video has not been shot surreptitiously by a rogue camera crew smuggled into the country on the pretext of doing something else as has been the case in previous instances.

It has been done by a team invited and supervised by the Ceylon Tourist Board as part of its 2.5 million dollar 'Sri Lanka Image Building Campaign' on the recommendation of Manning Salvage and Lee (MSL) which was contracted by the Sri Lankan Government last year to counter LTTE propaganda abroad.

The Sunday Times learns that the tender awarded to MSL was initially won on the basis of an impressive presentation by the group in April,1997, to correct the political image of Sri Lanka and help our foreign missions counter LTTE propaganda abroad.

It was made to an Evaluation Committee which included top level decision-makers from the state sector including the Tourism Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Board of Investment (BOI), the Tea Board, the Export Development Board, the Ceylon Tourist Board and AirLanka. Several representatives from the travel trade were also on the committee.

It appears that MSL was successful in convincing these Sri Lankan officials and subsequently the formal Tender Board appointed by the Government which included P.B.Jayasundara, Chairman of the Public Enterprises Reform Commission, (PERC) that they could effectively promote a positive political, investment and tourist image of Sri Lanka abroad.

The Sunday Times investigation into the film has unearthed some startling revelations on the 'Sri Lanka Image Building Campaign' itself, exposing the irresponsible manner in which public money was squandered, bringing discredit to the country and compromising its vital national interests.

This appears to have been a clear case of those, with highly questionable bureaucratic conduct, involved in the travel sector, persisting with strategies which were detrimental to the country's interests, ignoring saner counsel, for reasons best known to them.

The disrepute brought to the country could have been avoided had the authorities taken action on the early warnings about MSL which had been known for almost a year now.

The Sunday Times was told that the initial tender procedure was transparent. Compared to the three other companies, Grants, Rowlands and JWT, that tendered, MSL's presentation which recommended dealing with the complicated Sri Lankan political scene through a programme that appealed both rationally as well as emotionally, was streets ahead.

But the BOI expressed reservations, strongly backing the bid by Grants, which the Board was on the verge of hiring, for a separate investment promotion campaign.

By June 1997, MSL was informed that they had been awarded the tender and asked to submit an Action Plan, that the Attorney General had recommended should be part of the Agreement which would eventually be signed between the group and the Sri Lankan Government.

At this stage things began to go wrong. Mr. Sutherland who headed the MSL team from London turned up in Colombo in June with an action programme that apparently did not tally with the original presentation. It had left out vital sections of what had been presented to the Sri Lankan authorities in April. The Foreign Ministry's representative on the Steering Committee, Ravinatha Aryasinha, was the first to spot the gaps and raise objections to the very obvious watering down of the initial presentation. The Foreign Ministry had seen this as promptings by Amnesty International which had raised human rights concerns relating to Sri Lanka and the sense that the LTTE was a formidable outfit and should not be antagonised, with MSL.

These concerns were sufficient to make MSL's Sri Lanka project leader Sutherland, write a memo to his staff that they should re-think their strategy.

Following the suspicion aroused by the memo and the backtracking, the Foreign Ministry began investigating MSL, only to find that the group in reality had only four offices in the 18 countries where the campaign was to be run, that its financial status was questionable, and that it had no previous experience in dealing with a situation similar to that in Sri Lanka.

These facts were brought to the attention of the Steering Committee by the Foreign Ministry representative with the suggestion that MSL's credentials be verified once again.

However, the Ceylon Tourist Board had been determined not to give up easily. It ignored the objections of the Steering Committee and refused to reconsider the sensibility of a project that was already beginning to look murky.

The Chairman of the Tourist Board had even advocated that the agreement be signed immediately, without meeting the Attorney General's requirement of an Action Plan, arguing on behalf of MSL that it was the practice in this type of promotional exercises.

Since the Foreign Ministry was insistent that the agreement should not be signed without a careful review, the Tourist Board along with MSL approached President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga for clearance. At the presentation before the President in early August 1997, MSL attempted to reiterate that it was the most qualified to portray Sri Lanka in the most positive angle.

The President, after listening and watching an impressive slide show, asked Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, who had already conveyed his concerns to her, to outline his objections.

Explaining that he found the company unprofessional and a risk to national and security interests, the Minister objected to any tampering with the political image, where the Foreign Ministry had made some headway and enhanced the country's credibility to some degree.

After making these serious charges against MSL, the Minister had however, made it clear that he did not see himself as competent to judge the group's suitability or otherwise to deal with tourism and investment aspects.

President Kumaratunga had then ordered that the political component in the agreement with MSL be taken out, but that the group could go ahead and project Sri Lanka's tourist and investment potential.

The agreement for MSL to go ahead on those two aspects was signed by Tourism Ministry Secretary W P S Jayawardena and Mr. Sutherland in mid-September, but without many of the clauses the Attorney General had advised the government to include to protect itself in the event of any trouble.

Since then the Foreign Ministry appears to have distanced itself from the project, arguing that it did not have confidence in MSL on the mission communication strategies. It had also warned MSL and the Tourist Board not to get into any political aspects, but to stick to their specific mandate that of tourism and investment promotion.

A considerable amount of bad feelings had resulted on the Foreign Ministry's stance, with the Tourism Ministry blaming it for not giving the go-ahead to Sri Lankan High Commissioners abroad to get involved with the project.

The Tourist Board, unlike in the case of other groups it invites, had even taken the high-handed step of not obtaining visas or press accreditation for the MSL team which visited Sri Lanka to film 'Ina's Travels'. This poses interesting questions and is a clear violation of Sri Lanka's information policy.

The Foreign Ministry asserts that had it been approached it may have, as usual, gone into the script and the backgrounds of the persons visiting the country more carefully in consultation with its missions in Bonn. This may have brought to light the notoriety of the series

Even before the distasteful video was produced by MSL, there were several instances where its lack of professionalism had been seen.

For example. when the Galadari bomb attack took place in Colombo, in a childish bid to salvage the tourism industry, largely at the behest of several hoteliers, MSL through the Tourist Board had prepared and circulated a press release saying the attack was a result of lax security on a poya day. It had further claimed that the bomb was not directed at the hotel but at the World Trade Centre which housed the BOI and other important establishments which had opened the previous week.

The Sri Lanka High Commission in London reportedly managed to stop this damaging piece of information from hitting the press.

MSL's threatrics and lack of professionalism had also reportedly irked the President to such an extent during the Commonwealth Conference in London that she had ordered it to stay out of her programme.

MSL was paid US$ 19,000 to arrange with CNN to interview the President in October last year.

Later, after the Kelanitissa blast, MSL once again contradicted the government's media strategy, casting aspersions on the handling of the situation.

In the aftermath of the Maligawa blast, when several foreign governments issued travel advisories on Sri Lanka, instead of reassuring travellers on the situation here, MSL operatives in Italy and Germany are reported to have been busy informing travel agents to the contrary.

There is also evidence that in Germany, when moderate Sri Lankan groups mounted an effort to thwart a planned poster campaign by the LTTE to divert attention from the Maligawa attack and 50th Independence Day celebrations, MSL agents had passed on information to the PR company hired by an LTTE front organization, that it had nothing to do with the pro-government initiative but that the campaign against the government was being thwarted by Mahil Gooneratne the Tourist Board representative in Germany.

Despite all these hiccups which were well known to the tourism authorities, the Tourist Board appears to have kept Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake in the dark and maintained the perception that the Foreign Ministry was gunning for MSL. Conscious that the Action Plan being prepared by MSL was coming up for consideration and approval by the Steering Committee, on the pretext of wanting to incorporate the accounting officers of the agencies involved in November last year, the Tourism Minister was made to seek Cabinet approval for the re-constitution of the Steering Committee.

The Foreign Ministry says this appeared to be an obvious attempt to exclude its Director/Publicity. However, Minister Kadirgamar sensing the motive behind it, had insisted that Ravinatha Aryasinha should continue on the Steering Committee as an alternate member with the secretary or additional secretary as he was the operational man who was familiar with the subject.

The next point in this drama was the approval of the Action Plan, by the Steering Committee which turned to be a sticky issue with more members raising concerns.

A first draft had been rejected in November and MSL submitted a revised plan in December. However this too was not approved.

This made MSL rather jittery, having received only a mobilisation advance of some US$ 350,000 and by February 1998 according to their estimates having billings for work amounting to over US$ 600,000. It was on a vulnerable wicket, clearly incompetent to cope with the complexities of increased terrorist activities and boardroom theatrics.

However, the Tourist Board turning a blind eye to its shortcomings, merrily went along with MSL, providing even office space to it. By this time MSL was no longer even represented by its local agents, Wicks Advertising.

Wicks had opted out of the project, as MSL had not settled dues to the tune of more than Rs. 200,000 for initial research work.

With the Action Plan remaining unsigned as of March 1998, the President hearing more negative reports about the project from quarters other than the Foreign Ministry had asked the Tourism Minister to explore whether the campaign with MSL should go on or be terminated.

At a stormy meeting between the President and the entire Steering Committee in March 1998, the Tourism Minister had expressed his ministry's view that while it was not completely satisfied with the MSL's performance, the option of termination might result in the group tarnishing Sri Lanka's image. It had then been decided that the project should be continued.

The Minister had also brought to the notice of the President that MSL had even without approval of the Action Plan incurred billings amounting to US$ 600,000.

The President had then recalled her London experience with the group and noted that MSL should not be claiming for anything more than a single interview it arranged with CNN. (It had claimed US$ 19,000 for services associated with this project).

Suspicion had been aroused by this time that MSL was claiming for work done by other agencies of the Sri Lanka Government and was using much of the money to set up offices in places in which it had no presence.

The President appointed a committee headed by Dr. Jayanetti of the Treasury to study the bills and assess the claims by MSL. This committee, largely guided by the Tourist Board and the travel trade which continued to side with MSL, felt that with the exception of a few bills the rest were acceptable.

The Foreign Ministry, however, also referred the billings made by MSL to its respective foreign missions and found that the President's suspicions were largely confirmed. MSL was in effect claiming credit and billings for the sweat of other foreign missions, AirLanka, Tourist Board directors and most of the Independence Day related activities that had been planned many months before MSL had come on the scene.

In late April, Minister Kadirgamar informed the President that the missions had asserted that there was misrepresentation of costs by MSL. He recommended that the government terminate the agreement, as the project was doing more harm than good to Sri Lanka's image.

The President, agreeing with him instructed the Tourism Minister to consult the Attorney General on the termination.

Sources told the Sunday Times that when the controversial film was first aired in March,1998 Tourist Board Chairman H M S Samaranayake had arranged for important persons in the travel trade in Colombo to see it. While several of those present had expressed horror and concern at the contents of the film, they were allegedly told by Mr. Samaranayake that there was no harm in portraying Sri Lanka in this sleazy manner and that there was nothing wrong in the soft porn projection of an island in the sun. He had allegedly argued that it served the objective of reaching out to the young German traveller.

Meanwhile, Trade Minister Kingsley Wickremaratne said he had no control anymore of Wicks Advertising which originally belonged to him.

He told the Sunday Times that he, all along, supported the decision of the Foreign Minister on this matter and recommended that there was no need for Sri Lanka to have a foreign public relations agency such as MSL.

"Our foreign missions abroad should be able to handle this," the Minister said, adding all that was initially required was some training for locals by a foreign body.

"It is only a Sri Lankan who would know how best to market Sri Lanka," he said, stressing MSL should never have been allowed to continue operations after it had been pointed out that their credibility was in doubt.

Foreign Ministry publicity Director Ravinatha Aryasinha when contacted said from a ministry stand point "we are not surprised by the turn of events. We feared that something like this would happen for more than a year now. I am only sad that the very genuine concerns raised by the ministry and missions in the appropriate forums were not taken heed of. Had it been, we could have avoided this whole mess."

The Sunday Times would now like to pose the questions: Who takes responsibility for this fiasco? Can it merely be blamed on MSL which the Foreign Ministry and the BOI had cautioned lacked professionalism, while the other institutions involved persistently supported? Should not the authorities who were responsible for bringing this group give an explanation?

After all had they not seen previous films done by this "Pamela Anderson clone" well known in Germany or did they do it deliberately to capitalise on her cleavage to promote Sri Lanka? If so should they not face disciplinary action?

The Tourist Board which organized it, AirLanka which sponsored their travel and the local travel trade which gave them accommodation, would surely have had a sense of their filming activities.

The finger of guilt most directly points to the Chairman of the Tourist Board who made a concerted effort to buttress demands by sections of the Steering Committee to verify MSL's credentials when serious charges were brought to light by the Foreign Ministry after the tender was awarded but before the agreement was signed.

Mr. Samaranayake who for three months after the screening did nothing, had the audacity to claim in our last issue that he "is now taking action on it."

This is nothing but eyewash in the light of his endorsement at the screening of this film for the travel trade.

It is also pertinent to note that this sleazy project was in reality carried out with the full connivance of the Ceylon Tourist Board, whose Assistant Director Sumith de Alwis was present throughout the entire filming, but did not raise any objections to the damaging portrayal of Sri Lanka as a destination for sex in all its variety.

Mr. Samaranayake said he was too busy to speak to the Sunday Times this week.

Tourism and Civil Aviation Ministry Secretary W P S Jayawardena, told the Sunday Times that the original video done by MSL was approved by the National Film Corporation and did not possess the lurid shots that were finally shown on German television.

He seemed unable to counter the argument that all the footage was filmed on location in Sri Lanka in the presence of the Assistant Director.

Mr. Jayawardena maintains that there is an internal battle within the Tourist Board, but could not confirm whether disciplinary action is being initiated by the ministry.

Shots of the joys of Kama Sutra in the video were unwarranted and included after the film was taken out of Sri Lanka, he claims.

There is little that can be done now in the way of damage control as far as the video is concerned, as MSL maintains that the Tourist Board did not raise any objections at the time of filming. But should not the whole tender on the 'Image building Campaign" be investigated thoroughly, because unlike other tenders that have been botched up in recent times, and there are many, the loss to Sri Lanka by this arrogance of some, has not only been financial but has also compromised Sri Lanka's national interest.

Chronology of Events

April 1997 - MSL makes an impressive presentation, on how to counter LTTE propaganda abroad, to high level Sri Lankan officials from the state sector, the Tourism Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, the Board of Investment, the Tea Board, the Export Development Board, the Tourist Board and AirLanka

May 1997 - MSL informed that it has won the tender and asked to submit an Action Plan to be annexed to the agreement.

June 1997 - MSL presents Action Plan leaving out vital sections of the original presentation.

July 1997 - Foreign Ministry charges MSL of backtracking on original plan.

August 1997 - Meeting with the President Kumaratunga to get her clearance for the project. Political component of the project taken out, at the insistence of the Foreign Minister.

September 1997 - Agreement signed by Tourism Ministry Secretary W P S Jayawardena and MSL's Sutherland

October 1997 - MSL bills government for some US$ 19,000 for arranging with CNN to interview the President. MSL also attempts to damage Sri Lanka's image abroad by issuing a distorted version of the Galadari bomb in Colombo.

November 1997 - Tourism Minister Dharmasiri Senanayake made to seek cabinet approval for the re-constitution of the Steering Committee. Speculation in Foreign Ministry that it was an attempt to remove its representative on the committee, who had raised questions about the project. The Foreign Minister opposes this move.

December 1997 - MSL submits a revised Action Plan, but even that is not approved by the Steering Committee.

January 1998 - MSL, in the aftermath of the Dalada Maligawa blast, informs an LTTE-hired public relations firm in Germany that it is not responsible for a pro-government initiative to counter a planned poster campaign by the LTTE, in Germany.

February 1998 - MSL makes a claim for US$ 600,000 for work done on the Sri Lanka project.

March 1998 - The Action Plan remains unsigned.

The President requests the Tourism Ministry to explore whether the campaign with MSL should go on or be terminated. Tourism authorities recommend continuation.

April 1998 - The Foreign Minister informs the President that there was a complete misrepresentation of costs by MSL, and recommends termination of agreement

The President orders Tourism Minister to terminate the agreement.

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