By Jose Kavi
New Delhi, October 19, 2019: Readers and associates of Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) seem confused and shocked after two websites appeared in early October offering news in the name of Asia’s largest Church news agency.
“It is shocking to hear about the sad state of UCA News, the Catholic news agency that has served the Church, particularly in Asia, and trained me and several others to become professional journalists,” says Thomas Scaria of Mangalore, India, after receiving news from ucanews.org and uca.news.
The first hint of troubles in the 40-year-old news agency came in a message from Jesuit Father Michael Kelly, chairperson UCAN Ltd and UCAN Services Ltd, in the third week of September announcing the appointment of George Iype, a Catholic layman from India, as the new chief executive officer from October 1.
He also announced the UCAN board’s decision to end the term of the agency’s executive director Peter Monthienvichienchai of Thailand on September 30.
Father Kelly claims UCAN’s changes are signs of the agency’s growth as a significant player in the worldwide Catholic media scene. The Jesuit was the second executive director of the agency after founder director Maryknoll Father Robert Astorino retired after 30 years.
However, an October 7 message from Maryknoll Father Bill Grimm, Father Kelly’s partner in the two-member UCAN board and the agency’s publisher, indicated serious problems.
“It has come to our notice that a former employee of UCAN has floated a company in Bangkok called UCANEWS Company Limited and illegally hijacked our domain name, www.ucanews.com,” Father Grimm wrote to readers.
He said they have initiated legal action to secure the domain and protect the identity of their company, which is registered in Hong Kong.
Father Grimm assured that the media operations of UCAN for the Church in Asia would continue unaffected through the new domain: www.ucanews.org. He also wrote that the current situation would not affect the agency’s “commitment or ability to provide you with accurate, up-to-date news, features and commentary.”
However, on October 11, another website, uca.news started disseminating news under the leadership of Monthienvichienchai, who told Matters India on October 15 that his team is “incredibly excited to be bringing our stories to the world in the new format.”
He also said the website, www.uca.news, was created “to bring the stories of the voiceless in Asia to the world.” He claimed their organization’s “extremely dedicated” editorial team had come together for the new website to enable them to bring such stories from throughout Asia.
“We do this with the acknowledgement of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Thailand,” he added.
Monthienvichienchai also said they are the provider of the official English microsite for Pope Francis’ visit to Thailand in November popevisitthailand.uca.news.
He has distanced from ucanews.org, the site operated by Iype under the Kelly-Grimm board.
Referring to the troubles in the agency, Monthienvichienchai said, “For too long, the organization had been supporting a private company called “UCAN Services Ltd” that was being a drain on our financial resources.”
“By the end of 2018, according to audited figures over US$250,000 had already been loaned to the entity. In Q1 (first quarter of) 2019, our chairman, Sompong Daopiset, concluded that this was an unsustainable situation. I took immediate steps to cut cost,” he said.
According to him, the chairman stopped all funds for UCAN Services, although it was resisted by the previous executive director.
Monthienvichienchai said his second step to redeem the agency was to move the organization away from its IT service provider based in India. “For me, the price was way too high and the service was sub-standard.”
The IT service provider, he added, created and maintained their content management system (CMS) that was “very difficult” for anyone else to maintain. The provider also charged the agency each month to “fix bugs in their own work,” he added.
Monthienvichienchai also said he met with “fierce resistance from the previous executive director” when he negotiated for reducing monthly maintenance and hosting cost by half.
All this forced him and the team to create their own CMS and set up a new management company in Bangkok to run the news organization, the head of uca.news said.
As the two groups make claims and counterclaims, subscribers such as Scaria bemoan the news agency’s apparent deterioration.
“Whatever the reasons, I sense some deviations from the original vision and strategies for the past few years. Sustainability greatly depends on the continuation of the founders’ vision and mission,” remarked Scaria who had written hundreds of stories for UCAN during 1990-2010.
“It is really disturbing to note that the agency is winding up its services to the Church in India,” he said referring ucanindia.com that stopped publication on October 1.
Sister Lissy Maruthanakuzhy, a Daughters of St Paul nun and a former UCAN reporter, says the two versions of the news agency have baffled and pained her. She too had observed in recent years dilution of the founder’s original vision for the Asian news agency.
The UCAN leaders, who took over from Father Astorino, “lacked a committed and enthusiastic team as in the past. One could see its slow deterioration with drastic and sudden changes in the national offices,” she told Matters India.
Vince Giorno, who worked as UCAN managing editor under Father Astorino and served the agency a few years under the new regime, blames Father Kelly for the current troubles.
“All I know is that Peter Monthienvichienchai seems to have pulled the rug out from under Mick [Michael Kelly),” he told Matters India on October 17. He said he had found Father Kelly “arrogant” and “narcissist” from “very early in his reign.”
Father Kelly, who took over the agency in 2009, surrounded himself with “sycophants, however incompetent,” who “ensured that nothing much would come of whatever good ideas he brought with him,” Giorno alleged.
“Now it seems UCAN has neither credibility nor independence. An even sadder state of affairs,” Giorno added.
When briefed about current situation in the agency he founded, Father Astorino, who is now in the United States, told Matters India: “It concerns me, mainly for the sake of the Church in Asia.”