|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
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
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:
Emergence of a new reporting culture
Impact of new reporting culture on self-determination of Tamils
Emergence of media dynasties after independence
How the media dynasties are controlled by few families from Colombo
Fate of many newspapers in the hands of the Media and Political Dynasties
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:
The publication of news items and articles that
aggravates communal hatred between communities
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
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.
Connections with the foreign media
to further a propaganda campaign against the Tamil community and their
struggle for freedom
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
Highlight only incidents such as killings & bombings in Sinhalese areas,
followed by stories of arrests of Tamils as suspects.
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
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)
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 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
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:
Lalith Athulathmudali Murder -
General Kobekaduwa 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."
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
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."
Gamini Dissanayake's 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
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."
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
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.
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."
Kathankudy Mosque Massacre (1990) & Dehiwela train bombing (1996)
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.
Lion Air Crash
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
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.
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
Ceased Operations in 1972 due low circulation
Tamil Action Group
Very popular among English educated Tamils. Ceased operations due to low
MD Gunasena Group
Tabloid paper more aligned towards SLFP. Ceased operations after UNP came to
power in 1997
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
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
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:
Observer Evening (Lake House Government controlled)
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
Veerakesari group owned
(Lake house Group)
Privately owned by Mr Samy
(Issued in Jaffna)
The Sinhala Papers
(Lake house group)
(Lake house group)
(Wijeya News papers Ltd)
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
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.
Late Mr. J.R. Jayawardena brought the notorious Parliamentary Privileges Act,
which placed the media directly under the control of Parliament.
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
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
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
* 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 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
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.
The Press Council
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:
Expose Media bias
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.
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.
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
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)
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
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
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
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:
Lanka -Problems of Governance - K M de Silva
Betrayed- Stanley Tambiah
llangai Tamil Ilankai - USA
Peace Brigades International - Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka Monitor
The Indian Express
Sri Lankan English Newspapers