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Home > International Tamil Conferences on Tamil Eelam Freedom Struggle > > International Conference on Tamil Nationhood, Canada 1999 > The Reporting Culture & the Media Dynasties in Sri Lanka

Proceedings of International Conference On Tamil Nationhood
& Search for Peace in Sri Lanka, Ottawa, Canada 1999

The Reporting Culture & the Media Dynasties in Sri Lanka

Mr. Ponnampalam Kulendran

Abstract: The reporting culture of the print media in Sri Lanka has impacted the human rights of the population, communal harmony, and the social and economic situation of the country. In the last few decades changes in the reporting culture have been aimed to undermine the struggle for self-determination by the Tamils. These changes have been associated with the growth of the media and political dynasties. The changes have rewritten the code of ethics which governed journalism in the past. This paper reviews the growth of the media dynasties, the changes this growth has caused to the reporting system and the influences it has had on the people and the future of the country. The paper also suggests various remedial actions to counteract these harmful changes.


Sri Lanka is a country with the highest literacy rate (86%) amongst its South Asian neighbours and its print media dynasties have played an important role in the country's social & economic situation, human rights and intercommunal relationships. This document focuses on the following areas:

bullet Emergence of a new reporting culture
bullet Impact of new reporting culture on self-determination of Tamils
bullet Emergence of media dynasties after independence
bullet How the media dynasties are controlled by few families from Colombo
bullet Fate of many newspapers in the hands of the Media and Political Dynasties
bullet Where do we go from here ?

Emergence of a new reporting culture

The press is the main centre of information in Sri Lanka. If the press does not use its freedom and exhibit a high code of ethics to report the news without bias, distortion, any political alignment, or intimidation, then it is unlikely that freedom of speech and publication has any meaningful effect in a modern society. The Sri Lankan Supreme Court has held that the freedom of publication cannot be extended to matters of official secrets and confidentiality and the freedom to propagate one's ideas may be restricted in the national economy and for the principles of state policy. This latter decision directly resulted in the take-over of the Lake House group of companies. The Judiciary also has limited freedom of speech and publication in matters relating to " Contempt of Court".

During the last five decades, the growth of the print media dynasties changed the culture of reporting to meet its own political and financial goals and to promote political dynasties to attain power. A variety of disinformation techniques have been adopted to discredit the movement for the self-determination of the Tamil-speaking community and to hide the misdeeds of the state. The new reporting culture, under the cover of the need to protect state security, unity and press censorship includes:

bullet The publication of news items and articles that aggravates communal hatred between communities
bullet The blackout of news items relating to Human rights violations by the state and defence forces and the distortion of facts to meet the needs of the interested parties.
bullet Harassment of journalists who are not prepared to toe the line of the new media culture and restrictions on their mobility in the war zone areas with the aim of prevent them from reporting real facts.
bullet Connections with the foreign media to further a propaganda campaign against the Tamil community and their struggle for freedom
bullet Frequent contradictory news reports with no facts to substantiate any of them.

There are today many journalists, who are specially financed and trained to write feature articles with scintillating headings using words such as "Terrorists in Drug Racket", "Extortion of Money", "Tamil Refugees Involved in Shooting" . These articles appear in local and foreign media at regular intervals . The articles are mainly written by those journalists who have not had the chance to research into the issue, but write using their imagination and a few selective interviews. Some articles are about the refugees and about the living conditions in the war zone. These reports are not based on on-the-spot investigation or the gathering of real facts. The journalists dare not take risks against the restrictions imposed by the government. The state power of the Sri Lanka government makes it difficult to promptly verify these evil stories, but with time the truth emerges.


The promotion of racism is one of the main characteristics of the new reporting culture. For example, during the 1983 communal riots the (Sri Lanka) media failed to highlight the gravity of the situation and the sufferings the Tamil community underwent. They took cover under Press censorship and went on focusing over and over again on the 13 soldiers who died in Jaffna in a land mine blast.

The media failed to criticise the atrocities committed by the Sinhala mobs and the indirect support given to them by the government by delaying the enforcement of a curfew. They blacked out the publication of many horrifying incidents and the destruction to the properties of the Tamil community. There are many cases like this to prove how the Media dynasties promoted racism.

The following tactics are adopted in promoting racism:

bullet Highlight only incidents such as killings & bombings in Sinhalese areas, followed by stories of arrests of Tamils as suspects.
bullet Black out stories of atrocities committed by the Sinhalese community . For example, the media failed to condemn the recent Sinhala - Muslim riots in Pannala and Nochiyagama areas instigated by a group of Sinhala business organisations. In 1956 the Sinhala Only bill was introduced. The Federal Party staged a satyagraha . The satyagrahis were beaten up and the Sinhala mob went on a rampage. About 150 Tamils were killed. The Media went silent and never wrote against these actions. (source: Satchi Ponnambalam, Sri Lanka - The National Question & the Tamil Liberation Struggle, 1983)
bullet Writing explicitly racist opinions. For example, a Sinhala daily, the 'Lakmina,' was instrumental is raising the feelings of Sinhalese against the Muslims by writing: " A suitable plan should be adopted to send this damnable lot out of the country". The Lake House paper Dinamina demonstrated its communal attitude by saying " our inveterate enemies, the Moors". (Journal of Asian Studies 24 no2 (1970) 219-66).

News Blackouts

News blackouts is another strategy adopted by the Media dynasty to sweep the dirt under the carpet. Here again the emergency regulations and state security reasons helps them in executing this strategy. The amount of damage the government forces received in the 1996 Mullaitivu and 1998 Killinochi battles was blacked out. The value of arms lost by the government forces were not publicised, nor was the number of soldiers killed. The only reason given for this silence was that, in order to prevent communal riots, the real story must not be published.

False Propaganda through Distortion of Facts

The news media dynasties has distorted facts on political killings and bombing incidents to safeguard the interests of the political families and to are quick to point an accusing finger at a Tamil liberation movement. The reports were purely derived from assumptions and baseless inferences to increase circulation among the majority community. Here are few examples of this technique:

bullet Lalith Athulathmudali Murder -

On 23rd April, 1993 Lalith Athulathmudali was killed. The government and the Media accused the LTTE of this murder. The suspect was named as Ragunathan alias Appiah Balasingham. Even the famous Scotland Yard became a party to this lie. A Presidential Commission, headed by former Supreme Court Judge Tissa Dias Bandaranayake, has said in its report submitted on 7 October 1997 that, "the assassination was carried out not by an LTTE suspect but by an underworld figure on contract... premeditated murder was seen in the non-provision of proper security for the fatal Kirullapone meeting, the planting of evidence and wrong information given to the inquiring magistrate in an apparently planned and deliberate manner." The Commission said it believed that the Tamil youth Ragunathan, "was not the assassin, but he had been killed elsewhere and his body dumped near the meeting site to present a false picture."

bullet General Kobekaduwa Murder

The Sri Lankan army chief, Lt. Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, was killed in an explosion in August 1992, in the northern town of Kayts. The Sri Lanka government and the media immediately blamed the LTTE for this murder.

An International Commission appointed by President Premadasa concluded that it was a land mine planted by the LTTE that killed the general. A formal inquiry by the army also found the LTTE to be guilty.

International news wire services (Reuters and Associated Press) repeated this claim in their news stories for several months. The Far Eastern Economic Review was sure; the caption on the news read, "Tiger's Prey" [20 Aug 92]. Even a Tamil publication, the London-based Tamil Times [15 July 93] repeated the lie.

This fabrication was perpetuated for years, despite rumours that it was an inside job carried out by others in the Sri Lanka army. There were witnesses who claimed to have seen a videotape of a bomb being planted under the seat of the general's vehicle. A British expert, J.R. Wyatt, based on photographs of the crater left by the explosion, concluded that the explosive device could not have been a land mine. All these dissenters were silenced, to keep the lie (of an LTTE plot) alive.

A Presidential Commission found that it was not merely rival officers in the army, but the former President of Sri Lanka, R. Premadasa, himself who was responsible for the murder. The Commission also said there was reason to believe that the General was "killed by a bomb planted in his jeep and not by a land mine explosion as suggested by earlier investigations."

bullet Thiranagama murder

Nine years ago, when human rights activist Mrs. Rajani Thiranagama was killed, the LTTE was blamed. The LTTE's strenuous denials were ignored, despite circumstantial evidence pointing to involvement by the Indian forces and Tamil collaborationist groups.

Almost ten years later, a Sinhala broadsheet (Lakbima) has disclosed the truth by providing details of the killing. According to Lakbima, the gruesome killing was the work of the Tamil collaborationist group, the EPRLF. It is well known that during the Indian occupation of the Tamil Homeland, the EPRLF operated in tandem with the Indian forces and was responsible for many atrocities.

Thiranagama's killing was apparently carried out at the behest of the Indian Colonel Shashi Kumar who was alarmed by Mrs. Thiranagama's knowledge of the Indian army's role in many of the massacres which took place at that time. Lakbima has named the actual killer as one Thomas, who is now said to be living overseas.

bullet Gamini Dissanayake's Murder

On 24 October 1994 the opposition candidate in the last presidential elections was assassinated at a political meeting in Grandpass, Colombo. Immediately, the government and the Media accused the LTTE of murder.

A Reuters report (25 Oct 94) said, "the suicide attack was carried out by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam..." The AP report (24 Oct 94) was cleverer - it just wove into the story unrelated news about the LTTE trying to make a connection, without actually accusing the LTTE.

Barbara Crossette (New York Times, 25 Oct 94) wrote an article titled, "Latest Killing of a Sri Lanka Politician Fits a Familiar Pattern", trying to implicate the LTTE. The US State Department Country Report on Human Rights (1995) stated "the October 1994 suicide bombing that killed the United National Party's presidential candidate, Gamini Dissanayake, and 58 other people... credibly believed to be the work of the LTTE." The police produced the detached head of a 'Tamil looking woman' as the alleged suicide-bomber. The LTTE denied responsibility.

In an election mired by violence, Dissanayake's house had been bombed a few days earlier, allegedly by Sinhala thugs belonging to the government party. No independent commission of inquiry was appointed, despite several pleas by the widow of the assassinated leader and others. Now the son of the assassinated leader, Navin Dissanayake, has said, "I don't believe it was only an LTTE operation... My father had powerful opponents." In an interview with the Island [23 November 97] he said, "My mother wrote to President Kumaratunga requesting a commission... They have appointed so many commissions... but there is no desire on the government's part to probe the assassination of a presidential candidate."

bullet Ranjan Wijeratne's murder

On 2nd March 1991, the Sri Lankan Defence Minister Ranjan Wijeratne was killed when a massive car bomb blew apart his armour plated Mercedes Benz.

The government and the army quickly blamed the LTTE for this murder. The LTTE office in London denied any involvement, but said his "death would be greeted with a sense of relief by the Tamil people."
It was shown later that the real reason no one was tried for this murder is that the assassin was a Chinese Casino owner who had been expelled by the Minister 10 days earlier. There had been a tussle between this Minister and the underworld figure for control of the casinos in Colombo.

bullet Ex-President Premadasa's Murder

President Ranasinghe Premadasa was murdered on 1st May, 1993 in a bomb explosion in Colombo, while participating in a May Day Rally. The Sri Lankan government and the Police accused the LTTE of having committed this murder. This was published as news by all the newspapers in Sri Lanka and the news wire services carried the accusations to the world media. Some newspapers used insinuations. Aziz Haniffa of India Abroad, (New York) quoted unnamed diplomats as saying, "the killing carried the imprimatur of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam." Others were more direct. The police produced a photograph of the severed head of a man as that of the assassin, adding that, "a cyanide capsule was found embedded in the neck." Forensic experts who have examined this photo have scoffed at this insinuation (Eastern Eye, 11 May, 1993). The LTTE denied responsibility.

About 40 people, mostly Tamils, were arrested in the immediate aftermath of the killing, on the theory that Tamils were the main suspects. Most were released, but eighteen of them were later indicted. More than four years later, on 23rd September 1997, all eighteen were released, due to "lack of evidence."

bullet Pannalai Massacre

On 29 Jan 1997, nine innocent Tamil civilians were killed in an explosion in the northern town of Pannalai (Karainagar). The Sri Lankan media and the international news wire services (Reuters, AP and the AFP), promptly reported the incident as, "the LTTE exploded mines in a crowded area that killed nine civilians. It has subsequently been shown that the army threw grenades at a group of civilians walking on the causeway, and then opened fire.

bullet Kathankudy Mosque Massacre (1990) & Dehiwela train bombing (1996)

The aftermath of both these incidents are flagrant examples of this government's practice of blaming the LTTE with little evidence, which is then supported by the media dynasties. The government quickly blames the LTTE, which 'news bulletin' is then published as 'news' by the press in Sri Lanka and the international news wire services.

This type of attacks " by the LTTE" are frequently 'timed' and coincide with events happening elsewhere. It is noteworthy that the mosque massacre in Kathankudy occurred during Defense Minister Ranjan Wijeratne's visit to the Moslem countries in the Middle-East, where he was seeking assistance for the war effort against the Tamils. The Dehiwala train bombing occurred directly after the Sri Lankan forces 1996 debacle at Mullaitivu.

bullet Lion Air Crash

In 1998 a Lion Air flight from Palaly to Colombo crashed in the sea near Mannar . Immediately the media and a pro-government human rights group named UTHR put the blame on the LTTE for shooting down the passenger flight. Later it was proved by the investigation team from the Civil Aviation Department that the cause of the crash was due to inflammable items carried in the flight and there were no evidence to prove that the plane was shot down.

Harassment of Journalists

Under previous Sri Lankan governments, a culture of self- censorship had become prevalent within government institutions and the wider society, due to systematic official censorship. In its election promises, the PA stressed freedom of expression as one of its fundamental objectives.

However, according to ARTICLE 19, under the PA government, harassment of the press has actually increased. Newspaper offices have been raided and editors charged for reporting on the President. Reporters have been intimidated, detained and deported. Access to the war zones and areas not under government control has been denied to the press.

Harassment of journalists who write against government policies, about bribery or about the corruption of government officials and politicians has become a common feature within the past decade. This type of intimidation very seldom occurred in the 1950's or 1960's.

Four years after the last, the current government's relations with the independent media are troubled. Reports in newspapers and the six radio and TV stations, exposing cases of corruption and shady deals including dubious tenders, have riled some ministers who are privately pressing for curbs on press freedom. Under the cover of press censorship and emergency regulations the government in power expected the journalists to turn a blind eye to the activities of politicians and VIP's. While the previous UNP government used brute force to silence critics, its successor has been relying more on the courts. The harassment, arrest, beating, abduction and murder of journalists has been well covered in the press, so I will not recount each incident here.

Newspapers before Independence

"The Observer" was the first English Newspaper and published by Ferguson Group in 1834. It was the time of British Rule, so the owners of the main newspapers were Europeans. In 1918, Don Richard Wijewardane, who later became an influential newspaper magnate, started an English daily "The Daily News" and a Sinhalese daily "The Dinamina" in the name of Lake House Publications. He was the brother of D C Wijewardane, a strong Buddhist nationalist whose wife Vimala Wijewardane was the minister of health during 1956 under SLFP government and was implicated with the murder of SWRD Bandaranayake.

In 1915 the newspaper "Sinhala Jatiya" invoked Sinhala national awakening and carried anti Muslim stories which helped to instigate the Sinhala - Muslim riots. In 1909 the paper urged the Sinhalese to stop doing businesses with the Muslims from South India and with foreigners. A Sinhala daily "Lakmina" too was instrumental is raising the feelings of Sinhalese against the Muslims by writing: " A suitable plan should be adopted to send this damnable lot out of the country". The Lake House paper "Dinamina" also continued this communal attitude by saying " our inveterate enemies , the Moors". (Journal of Asian Studies 24 no2 (1970) 219-66). The Tamil dailies Eelakesari and Veerakesari were started in 1930 followed by Thinakaran in 1932 from the Lake House Group.

The Newspapers with short lives.
After the independence there were many newspapers that mushroomed, yet soon ceased operation after a short life due to Political , Security, Circulation reasons. The list of some of them are given below with the reason for cessation

Daily Mirror
Times Group
Ceased Operations in 1972 due low circulation
Saturday Review
Tamil Action Group
Very popular among English educated Tamils. Ceased operations due to low circulation
MD Gunasena Group
Tabloid paper more aligned towards SLFP. Ceased operations after UNP came to power in 1997
UNP Journal
UNP party paper
Ceased in early 1980's
MD Gunasena Group
Ceased operations after UNP came to power in 1997
Communist party paper
Ceased due to low circulation
M D Gunasena Group
Ceased operations after UNP came to power in 1997
Mr Ponniah - Jaffna
Which was started in 1930 ceased operation
Ceylon news paper Co
Started by ACTC in 1948 and later FP took control of it. Ceased in 1980 under emergency regulations
Mr Saravanapavan - issued in Jaffna
Ceased after Army take over in Jaffna

The rights of "Mirror" was bought by R Wijewardane and the name was changed to Daily Mirror. Eellandau and Eellakesari were popular Tamil papers in the Northern province. The Eellanadu press was burnt and the Eellakesari ceased operation after the Sri Lankan army took control in Jaffna in 1987. Suthenthiran functioned as a political paper of the Federal Party and later came under severe security checks and censorship. The short lives of many of these papers were due to Political vendetta and the strong financial and political power of the Media dynasties. Some of them faced bankruptcy due to poor circulation. The emergency regulations was another factor that curtailed the success of the papers. A neutral paper which was critical of the policies of the government in power could not withstand the challenge of Media dynasties controlled by few Political families.

The Current Papers & Publishers

The current papers fall under the following main publishing groups.

* The Lake House - D R Wijewardane was the founder of this group of papers. Before the government takeover in 1973 by PM Bandaranayake of the SLFP, the group was aligned with the UNP. The aim was to curtail its support to the UNP. The Lake House group of papers now function as the mouthpiece of the government in power. The practice of appointing qualified and experienced professionals such as the late Professor Kailasapathy (1958-1962) and Mr. Sivagurunathan as editors for Thinakaran, a Tamil publication of Lake House is now being changed. A member of the clerical staff from the Postal Service was made Editor of Thinakaran recently. The reason is that the government is not keen in improving the quality and the standard of Thinakaran, but needed someone at the editor level who could write what the government requires.

* The Island Group ( Independent News Group) -  This was also at one time called the Sun & Dawasa group. This group was owned by Sivalli Ratwatte, the brother of Mrs Bandaranayake and the paternal uncle of the present President. This group was also called as Upali Group, as Upali Wijewardane (who died in an Air crash in Malaysia) was its founder. He was also the nephew of D R Wijewardane and married a niece of Mrs Bandaranayake the daughter of Seevali Ratwatte. On Upali's sudden death his father-in-law took charge of the press. Thus a family link was established between the Lake House Group and the Island Group.

* Wijeya Newspapers Ltd (Formerly the Times Group) -  When the Lake House group was taken over by the government Ranjit Wijewardane started the Wijeya Newspapers Ltd, which was formerly known as Wijeya Publications Ltd., and was incorporated in 1979 with the primary objective of printing and publishing of periodicals and magazines.

In 1986 the Company expanded its business further by acquiring the publishing rights of several Sinhala and English newspaper titles of the Government-owned Business Undertaking of Times of Ceylon Ltd., which was under liquidation. With this acquisition the Company moved into national newspapers by first publishing Sri Lankadipa in 1986 and the Sunday Times in 1987. A family link was thus established between the Independent News Group and the Times Group.

* Sunday Leader -  Published by an independent group headed by Mr Hullugalle. It is more critical of the PA government and many news items are inclined towards UNP.

* The Veerakesari Publishers (Express Newspapers Ltd) - This group was at one time owned by an Indian businessman, Subramaniam Chettiar and Kesvan was Managing Director. It was bought by J R Jeywardane and Desmond Wickremasinghe. They started publishing "Uthaya", a Sinhala sister paper, which ceased publication after a short period. Due to conflict between the partners the ownership was sold to Ganam, another Sri Lankan businessman with origins in India. Veerakesari's editor's position was once manned by experienced and qualified journalists . But this policy is now changing because the paper's main aim is to bring in wedge between the Tamils of Sri Lankan and the Tamils of Indian origin for political reasons. . This group now goes by the name " Express Newspapers Ltd".

* Other Tamil papers

"Thinamurasu", issued weekly in colour, has the highest circulation among the Tamil papers issued in Sri Lanka. This paper is owned by EPDP, a Tamil political and militant group which broke away from the EPRLF. With circulation as the major marketing aim, the paper caters to the majority of the Tamil readers in Sri Lanka and abroad by carrying lively news stories, articles about the LTTE and critiques of the government actions against the Tamil community.

The Muslim Youth Front, with the help of Bakeer Marker from Beruwella, runs a Tamil paper named "Uthayam" which has many readers among the Tamil-speaking Muslim community.

The list of papers published by these groups with an approximate estimate of the circulation is given in the table below:

English papers
Daily News
Observer Sunday
Observer Evening (Lake House Government controlled)
Island Group
Sunday Island (Dr Seevali Ratwatte Father in law of Upali Wijewardane)
Sunday Times - Sunday Times Group R Wijewardane, son of D R Wijewardane. Upali is the nephew of D R Wijewardane
Mid Week Mirror - Weekly Times Group R Wijewardane, son of D R Wijewardane. Upali is the nephew of D R Wijewardane
Sunday Leader ( An independent group managed by Hulugalle )

Weekend Express Weekly

The Tamil papers

Many readers in foreign countries as it publishes LTTE news and S Indian Film news.
Veerakesari group owned
(Lake house Group)
Nam Thesam
UNP controlled
Privately owned by Mr Samy
(Veerakesari group)
(Issued in Jaffna)

The Sinhala Papers
(Lake house group)
Silumina (Sunday)
(Lake house group)
(Island Group)
Lanka Deepa
(Wijeya News papers Ltd)
(Communist Party)

The Media Dynasty & Political Power

The policies, activities and achievements of a political party need publicity through the Press if it is attain  political power. Through repeated publicity, people with diversified ideologies may be influenced to change their views. This is what happened at the last Presidential elections. The media projected Chandrika as an angel who would bring peace and prosperity to the country. That image building by the media cleared her way to achieve political power. Different religions languages, cultures play an important part in supporting or not supporting the actions and policies of the government and other Political parties. This is one of the main reason for the publication of different newspapers linked to and directed at different political parties, ethnic communities and regions.

Various President and Prime Ministers have in the past attempted to control the press either directly or by indirect means.

bullet Chandrika's mother, Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, took over Lake House. Almost at the same time the Sun Group of newspapers was sealed, while the Times Group was manoeuvred into bankruptcy.

bullet Late Mr. J.R. Jayawardena brought the notorious Parliamentary Privileges Act, which placed the media directly under the control of Parliament.

bullet Mr. Ranasinghe Premadasa did not depend on subtle tactics. His press officers walked into Lake House and dictated not only the placement of news stories, but their headlines as well.

Following the foot steps of her predecessors, President Chandrika Kumaratunge's latest move is in the long tradition of attempts to control and strangle the free and independent dissemination of news in the media. Government news is essential, not only to the Government-controlled press, but also to the independent media as well. In setting up the Policy Research and Information Unit (PRIU), the Government is in effect restricting access to Government Information. The relevant quote from the President is worth reproducing: "to ensure the accuracy, completeness, clarity and timeliness of information, the dissemination of information by ministries will have to receive prior approval of the proposed unit".

Chandrika, in addition to her various responsibilities as Minister of Finance, Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, is also the Chief Editor of the Government Media.

All governments, including the present one, have forgotten that the media, whether it is print, visual or electronic, is best left to the professionals. Amateurs who dabble with the media usually end up in the dustbin of history. To achieve and retain political power, building a powerful media dynasty is essential .

Impact on Self Determination

The media's new culture of reporting has impacted the struggle for self-determination in several ways. New methods have to be adopted to meet the challenges of the new reporting culture. When distorted facts are propagated much research and study has to be done to disprove it. Some of the main areas of impact are
* Aggravation of war
* False propaganda
* Harassment
* Battle in cyberspace

Aggravation of war

The media dynasties are partly responsible for aggravation of the war and the sufferings of the Tamil community. Their attitude towards the liberation movement and the hardships the refugee population are undergoing only generates more and sympathisers and supporters of the Tamil Freedom movement. The biased reports and censorship only helps the government to be more aggressive and to be less willing to find a solution. Articles are published about the Peace Proposals and there is constant talk of peace, but, in reality, the main aim is to divert the attention of the local population and foreign governments with false promises of finding peace and stability. The number of civilians killed or the atrocities committed by the army seldom come to light .

False Propaganda

False propaganda is used to inform the local population that everything is going well on the war front and the economy is growing steadily. The media plays down the number of soldiers killed or wounded. They magnify the number of rebels killed. They use the term "Terrorists" instead of freedom fighters or rebels.

Harassment of Tamils

The news items that appear after a bomb incident or killing immediately points an accusing finger at LTTE and quotes the incident as a Terrorist attack . Any subsequent news items related to it, talks about how many LTTE Tamil suspects were arrested after a raid. The news indirectly implies that only Tamils are involved in Terrorist acts and no other community in Sri Lanka is involved in any political killings or criminal acts. This type of reporting with a hidden motive instigates other communities to start harassing the Tamil communities.

The current situation in Sri Lanka is such that it is difficult for a Tamil youth to get a job in the Public or Private sectors , although many of them are qualified. The employers take cover under by saying " For security reasons we cannot hire you", a picture encouraged by the media . The harassment is evident even in foreign countries. Baseless articles on drug trafficking, extortion, and the illegal transportation of refugees are written with the help of selected foreign media to make things difficult for Tamils living in the western world. An example of it is given below:

A prominent Canadian news paper " Ottawa Citizen" published an anti-Tamil, defamatory report in 14th August, 1997. This article initially appeared in the Vancouver Province newspaper, where a sizeable Tamil population lives. The reports quotes an unnamed " Top Immigration Department source" as saying that the Tamils living in Canada, especially in Toronto, are subject to extortion by members of LTTE. It also said that "those Tamils who refused to part with their money suffered broken limbs and vicious beatings".

The protests prompted the chief editor to investigate the matter and resulted in the retraction of Salim Jiwa's report. The retracting article titled " Police, Tamils dispute extortion stories" was published the following day. The article also quoted Inspector Roy Teefe of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Department assaying" he had not heard of any incidents in which Tamils were forced to contribute to the separatist war in Sri Lanka." The report also quoted the press liaison for Canadian Immigration Dept., contradicting the statement in the original report by saying " The Immigration Department was not aware of large number of people being charged with criminal activity."

When the judiciary of a western country such as Canada is in the process of hearing a prominent immigration case of a Tamil refugee claiming political asylum, the media hires journalists to publish articles at the time of the hearing with an aim to influence the judgement. All these tactics are adopted to harass Tamils living in Sri Lanka and abroad, as the Sri Lankan government believes that the LTTE and the refugees in Sri Lanka are financed by the Tamils living abroad.

Battle of the Cyberspace

Cyberspace is a new area in the battle for public opinion that has been developed to target Tamils abroad. Internet is the best and cheapest medium through which to spread up-to-date information. Numerous web pages are financed by the government to carry out its propaganda. The Foreign Ministry has its own web page to publish regular news bulletins. There are many web pages (Ex: Sinhaya, Lanka Web, etc) carrying out propaganda against the struggle for self-determination. The Social Cultural News group carry unethical and racist postings which promote the war and communal hatred. Some of them are full of obscene language . There are few postings reflecting the culture, literature, art, music of Sri Lanka. The few postings on history are highly distorted to prove the fact to the readers that Tamils have no claim over any part of Sri Lanka .

The daily and weekly Sri Lankan print media too have their own web pages carrying up-to-date, news items modified to meet the requirements of Cyberspace. The censorship and emergency regulations in Sri Lanka have no influence on the news items appearing in cyberspace. Different opinions of an incident, such as a bombing or killing, that appear in the Internet leaks back into the country. Many Canadian Tamil papers extract their news from the Internet and use them as a modified version.

Where do we go from here?

Now that we have gathered various facts about the Media dynasties and there reporting culture what can we do to counteract the damage caused to the Tamil liberation struggle?. There are various actions suggested in this document some of them are listed below:
bullet The Press Council
bullet Reader's boycott
bullet Open Media
bullet Legal actions
bullet Expose Media bias
bullet Establish a True Reporting system

The Press Council.

The press and the media are governed by Sri Lankan Press Council Bill which was enacted in 1973. The objectives of the law were to ensure freedom of the Press, set a high standard of journalistic ethics and the provision of research and training facilities to working journalists. The composition of the Council consists of seven members, five appointed by government and one working journalist and one working employee, proving the fact that the government in power controls the council decisions. Quasi-judicial power was given to the council under section 12, so it has contempt power and can hold inquiries against errant journalists. It is also empowered to impose censorship on certain types of publications.

Leaks of information from government sources is one way of keeping the people informed of decision-making and to see the reaction of the people. But government providing distorted and one sided view of information to the public under the cover of security contravenes the provision in the constitution. During the last Killinochi battle the Defence Ministry played down on the number of soldiers dead and wounded and the value of the arms lost in the battle.

The provisions in the Press Council law are a major obstruction to freedom of the press. In 1990, a political correspondent, Suranimala, reported on internal cabinet decision making, his newspaper, the Sunday Times, was threatened with legal action. The threat lead a change in the editorial composition of the Newspaper.

The positive aspect of the Press Council Law is section 9, which deals with defamation. On receipt of a complaint or within its own powers the Council can investigate allegations of untrue, distorted or improper reporting and to order correction , to censure or request an apology from the defendant. How far this provision can be implemented for state controlled press is questionable.

Readers Boycott

A readers' boycott is one strategy that could be applied to force a Newspaper that fails to conform to the media ethics to go out of Circulation. Different actions could be applied to prevent the paper reaching the common man. The outlets through which the papers are distributed could be approached and explained the reasons for the Boycott of the selected paper and should be appealed to stop selling that paper. This action must be done in an organised manner to be effective. Constant monitoring of the effectiveness of the strategy should be done.

Open Media

The Editor of the weekly publication "YUKTHIYA", Sunandra Deshapriya, was involved with the Free Media Movement (FMM). In an interview to Peace Brigades International - Sri Lanka in 1995 he pointed out the following issues relating to the Free Media Movement.

* Nonexistence of a strong journalist community to fight for editorial independence. The journalist community is young and there are no links, no trade unions to allow them to organise themselves for their editorial freedom from the government and the owners of the Media.

* Government media (Lake House Group) is completely dominated by government propaganda. They do not give space to the opposition news or any dissenting voice. Even advertisements are selective. They try to suppress or silence or at least ignore the dissent. They censor news items concerning civilian casualties. The reason they give is that they want to silence anti-Tamil or Sinhalese extreme nationalist viewpoints. Instead, LTTE attacks on civilians have been published with photographs in the headline news, but you never see a Tamil Civilian killed by security forces in a photograph in a Sinhala Newspaper. Moreover, any arrest of Tamil Civilians is made to appear as the arrest of a Terrorist suspect and any news item on bombing carries a standard clause saying " It is believed that the LTTE's Black Tigers are behind the incident."

* The newspapers and the journalist community have not really taken up the challenge to fight the problems and show the people that there is censorship in writing.

The foreign and local media are barred from visiting the war zone or areas affected by the war. They are not allowed to take photographs of the damage done or the refugee camps or graves of the disappeared civilians without the permission from the government. Foreign media, such as The Hindu, AFP, etc base their reports on the press releases from the government . At the end of them they add the following clause

"Reporters are kept from the war zone. Television footage and photographs are shot by Defence Ministry crews and distributed to Sri Lankan and foreign media." (Dexter Cruez Associated Press, 5 Dec 95)

Legal Actions

News items and articles that damage the reputation of an individual or organisation or a community should not go unchallenged. If an article accuses an organisation for illegally extorting money or involved in transporting illegal immigrants, the article should be challenged through the judiciary. The press and the journalists should be sued for spreading baseless stories and character assassination. The lawyers in our Tamil community should come forward to appear free-of-charge for such cases. A consortium of lawyers should be available to plan action against such media

Expose Media Bias

Looking at the print media circulation it is evident that only a small percentage of the literate population buy papers. But when it comes to the question of expressing opinion, the media feels that what they express is the view of the majority of the population. They do not base their conclusions on a readers opinion survey, but function mainly to serve the interest of a few political parties. The media bias should be exposed with facts and figures. The reasons for the bias and the impact it has on Human rights and communal harmony should be explained to the masses. This exposure should be done within a short time of the appearance of a biased news item, if it is to have impact on the readers. In exposing such media bias it is relevant to quote news items relating to the same subject that appeared in foreign media and local media with unbiased reporting.

Establish a True Reporting system

Establishing a true reporting system in English and other main languages is another vital factor. Many papers published by Tamils living abroad are in Tamil only. The monthly English Magazines do not get much publicity due to a poor distributing system. The Tamil businessmen living abroad should provide help to such ventures by providing advertisements. It is essential that the real facts of the Tamil struggle for freedom should reach the different communities living in each country and also the Politicians, Associations, Institutions and Media. Any false news item appearing in any government-sponsored media should be contradicted with real facts. The distribution system should be organised so that there is a continuous flow of information.


This paper is based on information gathered by interviewing various people involved in print media and by researching on the Internet. The document has tried to establish the history of print media dynasties which are linked to political dynasties centred around Colombo. The opportunity to establish an unbiased news media in Sri Lanka which could focus on peace, communal harmony and prosperity of the country is the dream of many true Journalists. The question is can they achieve their dream under the present political situation?

References / Source:

Sri Lanka -Problems of Governance - K M de Silva
Buddhism Betrayed- Stanley Tambiah
llangai Tamil Ilankai - USA
Nando Media
Tamil Canadian
Tamil Nation
Peace Brigades International - Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Monitor
The Indian Express
Sri Lankan English Newspapers



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