Colombo, Media and Communications

The Press and Politics

Speech by Bradman Weerakoon at DR Wijewardene Memorial Award 2007
31st July 2007 at the BMICH

D.R. Wijewardene
D.R. Wijewardene

The subject Ranjit Wijewardene prescribed for me was The Press and Politics and I am thankful to him for his instruction that I could use as broad a brush as I wished, roam as broadly within the prescribed subject as I cared or even to tread (warily) outside it.

Bearing in mind the nature of the occasion, the distinguished audience- and the time – I propose to limit myself to some general reflections on three points;

Firstly the interesting and perhaps well-known nexus between the Press (ie the Owners/ Proprietors and decision makers)and what is broadly described as Politics – ie the people who practice the art of managing political power in Sri Lanka. As I survey the scene over the many years that I have been privileged to have a ring – side seat mainly from the Prime Ministers Office, I have seen the shift of emphasis between these two powerhouses – the Press and Politics – for not for nothing has the Press been aptly termed the Fourth Estate. Very broadly the shift is one, in which from an earlier time, the Press influenced the nature and structure of Politics, to one in which Politics or the Political Order influences the nature and structure of the Press.

Secondly to make some personal observations on the manner in which the Press handles and presents the major, critical political questions of the day and the profound consequences that has had on our social and political development.

Thirdly reflect on the principal challenges that the Sri Lanka Press faces today and particularly the challenge the Press faces from the State – the pre-eminent political force today

As we celebrate the life of Don Richard Wijewardene through this memorable annual event – the presentation of the Award for the best Sinhala novel in manuscript form for the past year (2006) – permit me the personal observation that this symbolizes the fulfillment of a particular dilemma of the Wijewardene era.

DR Wijewardene, like many other Ceylonese leaders of his time, perhaps with the exception of DB Jayatilleke who could write with great felicity in Sinhala, were schooled and more at home, in the language and culture of the West – the colonizer – than in the native idiom. Of course they knew their Sinhala but like the other leaders of Asia at the time – and Jawarhalal Nehru of India has indeed said so, were more steeped in the ways of the West than of their own country. In fact Nehru would bemoan the fact that he felt like someone between two worlds, in neither of which he was completely at home. That gap and omission – reluctantly shared by many of his Ceylonese contemporaries – is I think being comprehensively made up today through this celebration which highlights the value and relevance of Sinhala writing and the encouragement which Lakehouse, its newspapers and subsidiaries give to the national languages and culture.

While always being conscious of the Sinhala and Buddhist traditions in which he was grounded, and committed to a future in which his country was to be henceforth free from foreign rule, DR Wijewardene gave to his journalistic enterprise a bedrock of values that sustained his journalism throughout his life. This cluster of values emphasized secularism over sectarianism, a search for a Ceylonese – later Sri Lankan – identity over an exclusive majority community identity and such ideals as – equality, inclusivity, pluralism, an appreciation of dissent and in short liberal democracy. DR Wijewardene and his kind believed that these were political values that were important in the forging of a new nation comprised of different ethnicities, regional variations, religions and languages.

There is no doubt that these objectives were inspired by his early upbringing and experiences as Iranganie Meedeniya Serasinghe so eloquently reminded us;

– as his biographer says he was the son of a wealthy family, educated at a leading Christian school – S Thomas College – and a contemporary of DS Senanayake and Francis Molamure

– he went to England for his further education at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where he is inspired by GK Gokale and the reform movement for Indian independence

– he comes back to the Ceylon Bar and collaborates in the formation of the Ceylon National Association of which he was elected Secretary and later the Ceylon Reform League where he cuts his political teeth as Joint Secretary.

So we find the founder of the preeminent newspaper in the country very much into politics and with the ability through his newspapers to forcefully project his views on a wider canvass and mightily influence public opinion.

The newspapers that DR Wijewardene inaugurated reflect this intimate nexus between the Press and Politics. The Daily News which he began in 1918 for example had some clear objectives;

it was to be a newspaper with a soul and a achievable objective – political independence

it was to display strong convictions and opinions but was always willing to provide a fair show to the opinions and convictions of others

what was said through the paper appealed to thoughtful men and women anxious for the country’s welfare and advancement irrespective of race and creed.

HAJ Hulugalle, who was later one in the line of great Daily News editors and Wijewardene’s biographer, emphasizes the critical role that the Press and the great men that run them played at the time;

“Before he was fifty DR Wijewardene had established several flourishing newspapers, built up a great business and influenced the course of the island’s history”.

Hulugalle has gone as far as to say that DR Wijewardene’s enduring monument will be not his newspapers but the contribution he made to the building of his nation. DS Senanayake paid him the tribute of calling him “one of the foremost architects of the country’s freedom.”

While the legacy of Wijewardene was being acted upon, and his multi cultural, multi ethnic, multi religious framework of values acting as the springboard for reportage and editorializing in the papers of the ANCL, other emerging forces liberated by the end of colonialism were making themselves felt even from the first decade of the life of the new state. .

1956, the social revolution that SWRD Bandaranaike expertly put together and led, the pancha maha balavegayaya – the collective force of the Sangha, guru, veda, govi, kamkaru was to prove irresistible. The Sinhala press particularly played a tremendous role in mobilizing the emerging impulses of ordinary people for a share in the pie, and for power in the evolution of the nation in an alternative trajectory of growth. Those few in this audience of my age might recall the formidable effect that the cartoon of the mara yuddhaya in the political pamphlets and posters that plastered the walls of our cities and towns, did have. Howard Wriggins – political scientist and later the Ambassador for the US in our country called it one of the most powerful and compelling political illustrations of all time. It captured in a memorable way all of those so called anti – national elements that stood in the way of the progress of a nation struggling, as its advocates perceived it, to be born. Prominent in this composite image of the so called anti – national forces were the Catholic Church and the Tamil trader in addition of course to the usual suspects – the capitalist, the American dollar, and the debauched western way of life. This and the promise of a quick and easy entry into a golden age proved most attractive to the impatient masses. In the fevered atmosphere of a landslide victory for SWRD Bandaranaike, Sinhala – only legislation, nationalization and the restoration of the religion and culture of the majority became aspirations which were unstoppable. Many observers of the local scene aver that the battle lines drawn between political parties and the supporting Press groups then continue with perhaps added hostility and force today.

The emergence of an alternative independent Press to rival the established Lakehouse Group was no doubt a natural expression of the broadly different constituencies represented by the two mainline political parties of then and now – the UNP and the SLFP. From then on there was to be a contest in the print media for advocacy of differing causes and the influencing of the choices of the hearts and minds of the public. The competition was finally overtaken by the virtual nationalization of the print media. As we all know a major part of the print media and later the most powerful parts of the electronic, became thereafter hostage to the dictates of the all powerful State. While there were protestations that the Press Take Over was in the interests of greater freedom and ostensibly to free the monopoly of the ‘Press barons’, the greater objective of a broad -basing of the ownership – although promised by succeeding governments has still not been fulfilled. Again, underlying the obvious fact that control over the Press is too valuable a prize to be shared with all of the people. The question that remains is whether this appropriation has been utilized for the common national good or used for the benefit of the political party in power at the particular time.

I do not propose to take this interesting thesis further and would commend it as a worthwhile subject for an aspiring Phd student engaged in the study of Power, politics and the art of communication. But I cant resist one compelling hypothesis from this story inspired by a recent reading of Amartya Sen’s “Identity and Violence – The Illusion of Destiny”. Reading Sen, one of South Asia’s and the worlds great thinkers, makes one feel that the regrettable and unacceptable, at times murderous violence that divides our country today could well be driven by the reductionist division of people by race, religion and class which has been a feature of much of the presentation of news today. Sen refers to the big conceptual confusion about peoples identities which turns multi – dimensional human beings who are at the same time, say a Professor of Science, a Rotarian, a devotee of yoga, a father, a Hindu and a member of the Liberal Party into a one dimensional creature – a Tamil or as the case might be a Sinhalese or a Muslim. .

I have been too personally touched by 1958 (when I saw my first torching of a human), 1971 (my first dead insurgent), the crime of 1983, the suffering of ordinary people in the intervening years and the faint possibilities of a peaceful land in the early years of the 21st century, to remain emotionally unmoved by the sad events of today. . The Press has undoubtedly had a major role to play in all these happenings whether by commission or omission or both; whether through the agency of its ownership or bias in its reporting. It underlines the profound social responsibility of what remains of the independent Press in the country along with the other major shareholder the Political Order, and the heavy burden they carry in configuring the future shape and form of our country.

In this context and background and in conclusion of my remarks, let me touch very briefly as a member of the public, on three issues of current debate here which go the heart of the relationship between the Press and the Political Order. Time dies not permit their exploration in any depth, but let me flag them for what it is worth, as key issues of public concern and credibility.

Objective and accurate reporting of news regarding the war/ armed conflict (or terrorism) whatever it is called. The importance of this is that the public should always be informed of the actual position. If not they can be completely surprised and disoriented at the subsequent turn of events, as for example Accords between countries such as the Indo -Sri Lanka of 1987, invitations to foreign countries to act as mediators or facilitators, and Cease Fire Agreements as that of 2002.

“Truth” as John Pilger has said “is the first casualty in war”. But can’t at least we be truthful about some key elements of it; as for example the real costs of war. The public’s credibility can be severely strained by the constant press refrain that since about ten years ago the casualty figures-after almost 25 years of intermittent conflict- are yet at 60,000 deaths. Why this underplaying of a vital statistic that must surely be well known.

Secondly, in an increasingly interdependent global world order, the reluctance to recognize what are our mutual inter dependencies. The defensively strident editorials, feature writing, including letters to the editor when national governance and human rights issues are ventilated by civil society or foreign agencies (including the murder of pressmen and politicians with impunity) is not only regrettable but unacceptable. Our standard practice seems to be to “kill the messenger” if the message he carries is unfavourable. A truly free Press should welcome bad news and make it the reason for detailed and systematic inquiry, not cover up. Gareth Evans the President of the International Crisis Group in his Neelan Tiruchelvam Memorial Lecture two days ago from this very rostrum, spoke convincingly of the Limits of State Sovereignity and the Responsibility of the international community to Protect, in this 21st century. His thoughts merit consideration as we grapple with the States obligations to all of its people under international humanitarian law.

And finally, can we the public have an informed, non – emotional and open discourse about such critical issues of national concern as presently challenge us; the nature of the future State – unitary or federal; the unit of devolution, limits on executive power, subsidiarity or empowering local people, the protection of human rights, freedom of the media; all are up for determination as we grapple with the challenge of Constitutional reform.

At the dawn of freedom our leaders succinctly expressed our goals in what were called – the 4 freedoms;

Freedom from disease
Freedom from ignorance
Freedom from want, and
Freedom from fear.

The Press then had a significant role to play in translating that dream into partial reality. The Press of today have a more formidable responsibility. I have no doubt that our people will continue to honour and respect – as we did the founders of our Press of our past, the Pressmen and women of today, if they are true to their immense responsibilities and address their tasks resolutely and with courage.