Newspaper Publisher Sepala Gunasena who defied repressive governments and sacrificed millions of rupees in exposing frauds of state agencies, kept his final deadline at Kanatte on June 12th 1993 amidst a large and representative gathering of media personalities in recent times. Malagalage Don Sepala Gunasena, Founder Chairman of Independent Newspapers Limited and several other companies, [...]


Sepala Gunasena: The last sunset


Newspaper Publisher Sepala Gunasena who defied repressive governments and sacrificed millions of rupees in exposing frauds of state agencies, kept his final deadline at Kanatte on June 12th 1993 amidst a large and representative gathering of media personalities in recent times.

SEPALA GUNASENA: Founder of Independent Newspapers Ltd, Publisher of the Davasa, Sun and Thinapathi, Rivirasa, Weekend and Chinthamani

Malagalage Don Sepala Gunasena, Founder Chairman of Independent Newspapers Limited and several other companies, passed away at the Nawaloka Hospital, two and a half years after his newspaper empire collapsed in a financial crisis. Editors and confidants who worked with and admired the bold and courageous Sepala Gunasena, said his final two years in the wilderness of journalism, which might have cut short his career, were a sad reflection on the government’s commitment to support and strengthen free media institutions.

Around 1980 Sepala Gunasena relinquished his post as Chairman of INP but was very much the man who called the shots at the Davasa. In the mornings he would, like most journalists, get up late and proceed towards M.D. Gunasena Bookshop. It was by afternoon that activity got heightened in any newspaper office, and Sepala Gunasena would arrive at the Davasa building in Hulftsdorp around 2 pm.

“The Eagle has landed”, was the code word passed around the newsroom and sub-editors’ desk and that would echo in the Works Department.

The journalists would be on their ‘toes’ so-to-say from there onwards.

The bell would ring, and its resonance heard on the 4th floor of the editorial. Summons to the Editors, News Editors, reporters going with their notepads, and sub-editors with page proofs. Sepala Gunasena would love to change headlines, give the racy ‘Pukka Sahib’s’ comment for the day and go through the editorial. He also had a great sense of humour. He wrote many columns for his newspapers, specially the Sunday paper the WEEKEND. One column he wrote under the pen name Matilda was a weekly letter to her brother abroad relating the politics and current happenings of the week in a humorous style.

He would bark at his staff like a bull-dog and within the hour he would be talking to you like a child. He could be feared and loved at the same time. Through it all, he would stand by his staff in good times and bad.

One political columnist of yesteryear soon after hearing of Sepala Gunasena’s death on Thursday, the 8th of June 1993, recalled the late publisher’s attitude towards public affairs. He was told that there was sufficient material to show that Airlanka, Sri Lanka’s national carrier, and the second largest investment in the country only next to the Mahaweli Scheme, was corrupt, inefficient and abusing power. Sepala Gunasena had asked; “So, what’s the problem?” He was told that Airlanka would stop a million rupees of advertising to the newspaper already reeling by the withdrawal of adverts by all institutions under the then Finance Ministry. He said, “You go and do your job. Let me worry about the advertising.

Without a moment’s hesitation, Sepala Gunasena had advised, “If it is in the national interest – go ahead.”

Go ahead they did. And, as predicted, Airlanka stopped all advertising; withdrew the distribution of INP publications from its cabins and in the pettiest of all actions, its then Directors refused to interview a relation of Sepala Gunasena who had applied for a job.

Airlanka threatened to file action and asked INP to apologise. Sepala Gunasena asked them to go to hell. The newspaper carried a lone battle for nearly two years more, and eventually the entire Board of Directors including the Chairman were given the standing sack.

Sepala Gunasena who had already taken a battering from the Bandaranaike Government he had backed in 1970, again found that in politics there were no permanent friends but only permanent interests. He had a knack for making enemies with Finance Ministers. First Dr. N.M. Perera, then Felix Dias Bandaranaike and finally Ronnie de Mel.

Dr. N.M engineered a strike, Felix legislated individually against Sepala by hitting at a clause of his late father’s Wealth Tax, Ronnie cut advertising and sued him (and later withdrew). Even during Sepala Gunasena’s desperate days in 1990, there was little or no initiative by the Government to help a man who had helped it come to power. And neither did Sepala Gunasena ask for any favours. He would do nothing to compromise his and his papers’ independence.

Another veteran journalist who had joined the Sun old boys (jocularly referred to as the SOB’s) group at the Sunday Times recalled the midnight story that the SUN group could not tell for another three years. It was midnight on April 17, 1974 when Competent Authority Ridgeway Tillekeratne and machine gun-toting cops of a jackboot government raided the newspaper offices while the final editions were being printed.

Sepala Gunasena who was woken from his sleep at his residence next door, was alert and defiant when he confronted those who had come to gag the voice of the people.

It was during the next three years of trauma and crises that Sepala Gunasena’s great qualities and characteristics were imprinted on the newspaper world. Under intense pressure, with feelings being summed up in the famous D.E.M. O’Cracy obituary, Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike tried to negotiate a deal with Sepala Gunasena. But political power is never a match for the power of truth and the courage of a man’s convictions. Sepala Gunasena flatly rejected offers to lift the ban on various terms and conditions. If the sealing was arbitrary and politically motivated, he demanded that the unsealing must be unconditional.

Though he lost millions in business revenue, Sepala Gunasena remained strong and steadfast in his principles earning for himself in 1975 the prestigious Astor Award for independent and fearless journalism. The war of nerves and the war of attrition by a powerful government against a solitary publisher continued for three years until the David of Sri Lankan journalism finally struck the giant down into the dust heaps of history.

Behind the character of steel and rough exterior, there was in Sepala Gunasena a broad mind, a big heart and a compassionate understanding.

Many a journalist and other employees who faced a personal crisis, saw the full measure of Sepala Gunasena’s greatness in his personal care for others. One journalist recalled this week how in 1986 when he asked for a loan to rent out a room, an apartment in Sepala Gunasena’s own bungalow was made available to him, fully furnished with all facilities and free of charge.

Even after the closure of Independent Newspapers in December 1990, one long-time employee recalled how when he was ill and warded at Kalubowila Hospital, Sepala Gunasena offered him better facilities at a nursing home. He identified closely with the problems of his employees.

Once when an outside canteen mudalali tried to bully a poor worker who was having lunch, Sepala Gunasena cancelled the contract at heavy cost to him and packed off the mudalali.

During the 1983 racial riots, scores of Tamil employees were personally cared for and protected by Sepala Gunasena in his own offices. He stayed with them till night on that horrible July 25 and before he left, made arrangements for an Army contingent to come in case of emergency. When some of the employees later moved to refugee camps, Sepala Gunasena sent van loads of food and other essentials to them. In some cases, the recipients of Sepala Gunasena’s generosity did not know from where the help had come.

Sepala Gunasena did not blow trumpets about his good deeds. Often, he would not let even his left hand know what his right hand was doing.

Growing up in the traditions of his great father M.D. Gunasena, who had close links with the common people and culture of Sri Lanka, Sepala Gunasena also never lost the common touch. Often, he would come to the board room in short-sleeved shirt and slippers. From his journalistic guru D.B. Dhanapala, who piloted the Davasa group for the first ten years, Sepala Gunasena patiently and humbly learnt the deeper aspects of journalism and how to feel the pulse of the common people. Under the brilliant guidance of D.B. Dhanapala, they turned the Davasa group into a third force in journalism. Slowly there was the emergence of newspapers of the people and for the people, reflecting the views of the common people. They worked on the principle that a newspaper must essentially reflect public opinion, while creating awareness and educating the people on vital issues.

This probably explains why the Davasa group backed different parties at the three different elections from 1965. Every time it turned out that the Davasa group was on the winning side. In 1965, it supported the UNP and the UNP won. In 1970, it supported the SLFP-led United Front which won a landslide victory. In 1977, the Davasa group backed the UNP which was swept to power in an avalanche.

If Sepala Gunasena always backed the winner, he could have shared in the spoils of that victory, and enjoyed the plums and privileges that most politicians have. But he was a man who always put national interest above any party interest and above any self-interest. Eventually what mattered was not whether he was with winners or losers but how he played the game – and Sepala Gunasena, without any doubt, played it well.

Travails of a publisher

M.D. Sepala Gunasena was born on September 22nd 1923, the eldest son of M. D. Gunasena the well known book publisher, book seller and printer. After his father’s death in 1959, he became the Chairman of the M.D. Gunasena Group of Companies.

In 1960, Sepala Gunasena founded Independent Newspapers Ltd. and on the 14th of August 1961, the first issue of the Sinhala daily the DAVASA rolled out from the presses. It was soon followed by an English daily the SUN and a Tamil daily the Thinapathy. On Sundays the Company published the Sinhala Sunday newspaper the RIVIRASA, the English Sunday the WEEKEND and the Tamil Sunday the Chinthamanie. It also published a host of weekly magazines.

But during the course of the company’s chequered history, Sepala Gunasena had to wage a valiant battle to safeguard the independence of his newspapers and to defend the freedom of the press in Lanka. In April 1974, the company’s presses were sealed by the Sirimavo government on the urgings of its leftist coalition partners. It was only unsealed when the emergency regulations under which it had been sealed lapsed in early 1977 when Parliament was dissolved to hold elections. Thus automatically freed from bondage, the newspapers started publishing again from the 31st of March that same year.

In 1990 when government institutions withdrew their advertising, when state banks recalled the loans given to the company immediately and followed it up by publishing an ex parate notice in the papers to sell by public auction the properties the company had mortgaged as collateral for the loans, the sun began to set for the man and his newspapers. And on December 26th Sepala Gunasena, unable to publish his newspapers whilst maintaining an independent stance, preferred to let the sun go down on his newspapers rather than compromise on his principle of press independence.

He passed away on June 10th 1993. As the Sunday Times editorial stated on June 13th 1993: “Though he did not live to see it, the Sunday Times today honours him with editorial tribute and a pledge that the ideals of press freedom he lived for and died for, would be carried by us and all independent journalists into the future pages of our history.”

Today the Sunday Times reproduces an article it published the day after Sepala Gunasena’s funeral as a tribute to this knight defender of the freedom of the press on his 96th birth anniversary.


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