Just as much as any other business venture, a newspaper company also aims at profit. Although the radical anti-capitalist would slam a newspaper tycoon for reducing the people’s right to know to a commodity, a publisher plays an unenviable role in promoting democracy at some considerable risk.
For his own physical and financial survival, a publisher has to play a balancing act. And we saw the Sunday Times publisher walking the tightrope in the 1988-1990 era.
On the one hand, he had to be circumspect to protect his business, the success of which was vital not only for him but also for hundreds of employees. On the other, he had to give journalists the freedom to write and highlight social injustices, corruption at the top and political skullduggery, among other things that earned him the wrath of the powers-that-be. This was indeed walking a tightrope.
Never in Sri Lanka’s media history had journalists and publishers of independent newspapers come under so much threat from so many quarters as they did during the 1988-90 era of terror. It was during this era that for the first time in Sri Lanka’s history, a journalist was abducted and killed.
The government of the day, fighting two insurrections – one in the north and the other in the south – was so sensitive to newspaper reports that it had its own warped criteria to measure a newspaper’s anti-governmentness. The Sunday Times was branded an anti-government newspaper. One article that made the then President, R. Premadasa, furious was a translation of a Q&A with Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna leader Rohana Wijeweera who was leading the youth insurrection in the south. At a meeting in Pannala, the President warned the Sunday Times publisher in language that shocked the people who heard it. He accused the publisher of being a donor for the opposition.
was an era when bodies floated on the Kelani river or ended up on tyre pyres on the main roads.
The publisher also had to face the wrath of the JVP for not publishing in full the Wijeweera Q&A.
On another occasion, a close relative of Wijeweera was at the publisher’s office, demanding to see him.
The publisher’s office assistants told him that the boss was not in office. The visitor angrily stormed out of the office, vowing to come back with an army of JVP rebels, because he felt the office assistants had prevented him from seeing the boss.
The Sunday Times security officers took no chances. They closed the gates and kept the doors shut. A few hours later, around 4 p.m., there were big thuds on the door. ‘Dora Arinawa’ (open the door), shouted the voice from outside. It made half the security staff run through a back door all the way to the residence of the publisher. One of them ran shouting, ‘Onna JVP enawo” (JVP is coming). It later turned out to be one of our drivers who wanted to report for duty at 4 p.m.
During this era of terror, we journalists, probably due to our over enthusiasm or activism, were sometimes oblivious to the publisher’s balancing act and the need for it. Aware that the government even took into consideration the size of the front page main photograph in gauging a newspaper’s degree of antipathy to the powers-that-be, the publisher had the habit of downsizing it, much to our disappointment. He would ask us what our front page picture was and how big it would be on the page.
Knowing that he would reduce the size by a column or two, we would, on the instructions of the then assistant editor, Lalith Alahakoon, tell him that we wanted to make it six columns (the paper had ten columns) width-wise. He would say four, which would be the size we wanted anyway. One such picture is reproduced here today to illustrate this article. Thus we beguiled the boss, for journalism’s sake – for a greater cause. For us it was journalism; for him it was a question of survival.