It was not a scene from a Dirty Harry movie but a real life scenario where Harry Jayawardena, among Sri Lanka’s richest, if controversial men, verbally abused and intimidated a Business Times journalist last week just because he didn’t like what she wrote.
It was appalling that some of the captains of industry who lord on governance, transparency and the new buzz word – whistle blowing – who were there did nothing to stop the ugly scene and language of a common thug. There was nary a word from them. “What can we do …”, said a top executive, offering a sheepish explanation symptomatic of the weak-kneed and gutless.
Mr Jayawardena, who once threatened a Customs officer at gunpoint and has had the backing of many governments including that of a former President, was no better than a Mariyakade thug – hurling abuse and explicit vituperatives, obviously trying to take advantage of a lady journalist. No one dared stop him nor would he have dared do it to a male journalist from the Business Times. Chivalry, up yours, 'Dirty Harry'.
The business czar owns several companies but recently lost his lucrative cash cow, Sri Lanka Insurance Corp (SLIC) when the Supreme Court frowned on yet another privatization that was flawed. He got out of jail, really. Not to be outdone, Mr Jayawardena’s liquor firm, Distilleries Corp of Sri Lanka (DCSL) this week announced that it planned to invest half a billion rupees on a new insurance venture.
So what irked this business-man to hurl a torrent of verbal diarrhea on a journalist? The Sunday Times Business Desk has been consistently reporting the happenings at the Stassens Group, an original tea company that was founded by four friends - V.P. Vitachi, Harry Jayawardena, Zaki Alif and Raj Obeysekera. The foursome worked together at state tea firm Consoloexpo in the 1970s and then quit to form a company, using their wide experience in the tea trade.
The company grew but as time went by many decisions were taken by Mr Jayawardene without consulting the other three. The situation turned ugly with threats and intimidation against the other three directors, one of whom Mr Vitachi died last year, and a dispute over the group is now in courts. While reporting on these events and other related company issues, Mr Jayawardena has consistently refused to answer questions from this newspaper. He told the Business Times reporter during the ugly incident that the newspaper was publishing a lot of lies.
Mr Jayewardena’s fallout with many top businessmen is well known and one in particular, Nihal Jinasena, quit in disgust as Chairman of DFCC, a bank controlled by Mr Jayewardena, over the planned ouster of Mahendra Amarasuriya as chairman of Commercial Bank, which the arrogant businessman wants to control.
The media is not a sacred cow and if anyone feels he has been victimised, defamed or wronged, there are well-laid out and tested mechanisms to complain to.
The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) investigates complaints from the public on reportage in newspapers. The courts are there if an individual wants to sue a newspaper. That’s the correct way if someone has been wronged by a newspaper – not Mr Jayawardena’s style in sending someone to the ‘grave’ as the threat to the reporter (‘I will send you to a place you will never come back from’) implied. The journalist has filed a complaint with the Fort Police and we would expect the Police to do their job in following it up.
The big boys in Sri Lanka’s corporate sector should hide their heads in shame. Many are prepared to criticize Mr Jayawardena but only behind his back as business relationships and deals take precedence over ethics, good governance and good behaviour to which many of them pay lip service otherwise.
The corporate community is filled with awards, accolades and pats on the back for a job well done and, maybe there should also be an award for the best-behaved CEO! This week it was the Best Corporate Citizen’s Award; last week it was the best exporter’s award and so on. Companies are picked on their financial performance while other fundamentals are ignored!
Just like the tradition in Hollywood where – just before the Oscars and Academy Awards – there is an award for the worst film and actors and elsewhere the worst dressed celebrities, the corporate sector must launch an award for the most boorish and most uncouth Chairman of all ! No prizes for guessing who the winner by a mile would be. Cheers for the Season. Have one on us.