To mark International Right to Information Day which falls on Wednesday, September 28 and commemorate the 31st death anniversary of Esmond Wickremesinghe, a much respected media baron and press freedom activist in Sri Lanka, we publish a speech delivered by him at the 9th Commonwealth Press Union Conference jointly held by India and Pakistan in [...]


Eternal vigilance in defence of press freedom in Lanka


To mark International Right to Information Day which falls on Wednesday, September 28 and commemorate the 31st death anniversary of Esmond Wickremesinghe, a much respected media baron and press freedom activist in Sri Lanka, we publish a speech delivered by him at the 9th Commonwealth Press Union Conference jointly held by India and Pakistan in 1961.  Mr. Wickremesinghe passed away on September 29, 1985.


Esmond Wickremesinghe: The 1961 debate was on how to kill the press

Mr. WICKREMESINGHE (Ceylon): I propose to deal with one aspect of the problem of the freedom of the Press, namely the problem in an under-developed country, and in view of the recent developments affecting the Press in my own country, I should endeavour to draw certain broad conclusions from our experience in Ceylon. During the last 18 months there has been an incessant battle by the Press of Ceylon to prevent the freedom of the Press being extinguished in Ceylon. At the present juncture the caucus of the ruling party, the Government Parliamentary Party as it is known, is conducting a great debate within itself as to how the freedom of the Press could be destroyed; whether it should be death by hanging or death by shooting! But while this discussion goes on, that freedom still survives!

There are two alternative methods of execution – if I might carry the metaphor a little further – which are being debated. One is the technique of the control and licensing of all newspapers, magazines and journals, and of journalists, editors and publishers as well. The other is the technique of some form of nationalization. This debate might seem very abstruse to an outsider, almost like the mediaeval debates on how many angels could stand on the tip of a needle. In practice however these two techniques of extinction of the freedom of the Press represent a conflict between two fractional standpoints, which are of great political significance in that they are not easily reconcilable.

In discussing this question I would, as I mentioned earlier, like to deal with Ceylon more as a case-history and to avoid anything parochial or emotional. I should like to try to dissect the various forces at play in discussing this situation and to see whether there are any conclusions that one can draw from this situation which would be of value in the future.

At the outset of course I want to avoid wasting any time discussing the sort of hypocritical verbiage in which, naturally, all legislation against the Press is clothed. All legislation against democracy throughout history has always been in the name of democracy, and all legislation to suppress freedom of the Press has always been in the name of freedom of the Press! Any legislation in Ceylon will be no exception!

I would now like to turn to the essence of our problem. It is that the attack on the freedom of the Press in Ceylon is itself a reflection really of a wider problem that we have in Ceylon – the struggle of democracy itself for survival under the pressure of social forces released by the popular urges about which the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Nehru, spoke yesterday. As he said, there has been a reversal of the historical process in our part of the world. When Britain left her former colonies she left behind the democratic institutions which are the characteristic feature of British political life. These newly independent countries did not have the economic resources to sustain them. India has been successful, perhaps extremely successful, in maintaining political equilibrium while these resources are being increased; but most of the other countries have not been so fortunate. Ceylon unfortunately has failed to maintain this political equilibrium, but we have not been as unfortunate as some other countries.

As a result, in Ceylon, various social groups have tried to oust others for these inadequate resources, causing very severe strains on our democratic institutions. In fact, for the last six months Ceylon has been under the declaration of an Emergency. Although this is not the same as martial law, it in nevertheless a situation where a civil Government assumes fairly similar extraordinary powers such as of detention without trial, of complete bans on strikes and lockouts, etc. this sort of situation creates a climate in which Governments desire and seek to control the Press. The proposals of the most recent legislation against the Press which were discussed by the ruling party brought in this broad idea of control, namely of controlling both newspapers and all other publications by making them dependent on Governmental licences, as well as of controlling all those connected with the production of these publications in various ways, particularly by making continuance in the profession depend on a licensing system, and introducing severe penalties for any acts of publication the Government disapproves of.

In addition, powers were given to a Press Control Board to decide what matter should be published and what ought not to be published, and of even giving directions to editors as to what attitude should be taken by them in their comments on matters of public interest. These were the salient features of the proposals which were rejected by the Government Parliamentary Party. It was paradoxically rejected at the instance of what you might call a neo-Marxist group of members who were worried that the forms of control proposed would bring all publications, including their own publications, under the control of certain individual Ministers. So, they canvassed their fellow-members to have the system of control proposed rejected, and succeeded in enlisting sufficient support from numerous other groups in the Government Parliamentary Party itself who were alike worried at these wide powers of control, which, in practice, would place the Press of Ceylon in the hands of the Minister or Ministers in charge of administering the legislation, to have the draft thrown out. Instead the Neo-Marxist group suggested another plan. They said “why not nationalise the Press?” That was really in keeping with their current strategy of destroying what the Marxists call the “bases of capitalism.” That also would create a situation in which naturally the Marxist infiltration into the Press can go very far indeed.

This debate still goes on and the question arises “What about the future of the Press of Ceylon?” The position of the Press in Ceylon is no doubt bad but it is not hopeless. One might describe it as being grey, not black. The very conditions which give rise to threats to freedom of the Press give rise simultaneously to “anti-bodies” which work to preserve that freedom! This has been one useful lesson which we have learnt from the situation in Ceylon. Various political groups begin to fight among themselves for the scarce resources that exist, inadequate as they are. That creates the multiplicity of groups reflecting themselves in the whole spectrum of political life where a specific issue unites a particular set of groups and another issue unites another set of groups. So, while these groups may on individual issues unite for or against each other, they all appear to be agreed in resisting any attempts by one or few of these groups to get into a position where they can dominate or suppress the others. If this becomes vital to the others to prevent the Press from getting into the hands of one single group.

Further, in this continuing struggle the Press is a useful medium through which the various groups can reflect their aspirations and demands. In fact, that was the situation which enabled the neo-Marxist group in the Government caucus to get the support of a sufficient number of non-Marxist groups to have this draft legislation for complete control rejected.

Similarly nationalisation of the Press still leaves unresolved this problem of control. It is very easy to shout “Nationalise.” But somebody has to control the Press thereafter, and that boils down to one group or another. Even though some groups may theoretically accept the principle of nationalisation, they are not often happy with any legislation which will not give them any part of the control. No legislation can possibly give all or most of the groups wanting nationalisation a share of control. That in a sense is a dilemma which perhaps permits the freedom of the Press still to survive.

The second factor is that parliamentary institutions still continue and as long as they exist fairly freely as still is the case in Ceylon, they provide a very useful safeguard. I have tried to look for a precedent where Press freedom has been successfully destroyed in a country where free parliamentary institutions exist, but I can find none. There is the case of Egypt, but it was only after the free Parliament was destroyed that the freedom of the Press itself was destroyed, because as long as parliamentary institutions are free, the essential fact is: Where does sovereignty lie? If it lies in Parliament, as it should, and Parliament is free, it is extremely difficult, in fact almost impossible, to interfere with the freedom of expression, of which freedom of the Press is the chief manifestation. What happens and is said or done in Parliament cannot be prevented from being freely and fully reported.

Another factor is the views of various countries with which Ceylon is associated. In the case of Ceylon the views of the Commonwealth and of neighbouring countries have an impact on public opinion as well as on politicians in Ceylon. After all you cannot ignore what your neighbours and your friends think! And at this stage I should like to convey the thanks of all those who value the freedom of the Press in Ceylon for the part played by the Commonwealth Press Union and its member newspapers during those long months in helping us to preserve that freedom in Ceylon.

There is still one other factor and that is a factor which the Prime Minister of India referred to in his speech. That is the Asokan tradition of tolerance which is particularly strong in countries where Buddhism prevails. In Ceylon we had a very long tradition of tolerance, of tolerating different views from whatever portion of the world they came and like India, of which Ceylon is a part culturally, it too has had this tradition of synthesising and of taking what is good from every idea that may come its way. It is very difficult to regiment or suppress freedom of expression among a people who have enjoyed this long tradition. I do not say it is impossible, but it is extremely difficult.

So, while there are these dangers, I am sure that as long as there is no outright totalitarian state, there is a certain degree of protection arising from these “anti-bodies” which I have indicated earlier. Of course much depends on how effectively the protecting factors assert themselves at any given time against the threatening factors. The freedom of the Press may go under or it may survive. But eternal vigilance and action in its defence is an essential precaution.

Possibly for a period, perhaps during the growing pains of these countries, these threats can be held – no doubt in an uneasy equilibrium, but nevertheless they can be held. The freedom of the Press may be threatened but it need not be destroyed. That is the situation in which the Press in Ceylon is placed. Perhaps it can be the situation that any other under-developed country can experience. Of course in the long run some solution must be found for placing these democratic institutions including the freedom of the Press in under-developed countries, on a firm foundation if their continuation is to be assured.


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