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Sunday, 22 February 2009

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Remembering D. R. Wijewardene

Only a few people have influenced the course of Sri Lanka’s history in the manner that D. R. Wijewardene, founder of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited, has done. As we commemorate the 123rd birth anniversary of this noble son of Lanka, it is time to re-appraise his yeoman service to the nation.

A patriot to the core, Wijewardene would have been among the happiest of individuals if he were alive today. He wanted the nation to triumph over adversity and forge unity in diversity. It is indeed apt that we are recalling his extraordinary contribution to the nation and its people at this juncture when the Security Forces are on the verge of annihilating terrorism and regaining freedom for masses trapped for decades by a terror group.

He too was fighting for the same values - freedom, democracy and sovereignty. Wijewardene, hailing from an affluent family, could have looked the other way and pursued his legal career and business interests while the people suffered under the yoke of colonialism. But he did not. He was in the vanguard of the freedom movement and in newspapers, found the perfect medium to carry forward the freedom struggle.

It is perhaps ironic that the very idea of starting a newspaper was proposed to Wijewardene by an Englishman - F.A.M. Cobert, a respected lawyer. That did not prevent Wijewardene from campaigning for the ouster of the colonial Government from our shores via his newspapers. Wijewardene took the epoch-making step towards building his newspaper group, still the country’s largest, by acquiring the Dinamina pioneered by H. S. Perera, in 1914. Incidentally the Dinamina, having been established in 1909, turns 100 this year, a testimony to Wijewardene’s commitment to build a truly Sri Lankan newspaper industry.

His next major step was the acquisition of The Ceylonese in 1918, which he renamed Ceylon Daily News, our sister paper. In fact, the Ceylon Daily News became such an ingrained part of people’s lives that many old timers still call it CDN, long after the newspaper shed the Ceylon tag.

It became one of the most influential voices in the local political scene, shaping opinions and creating debate and it remains so, 91 years on. Another milestone in his odyssey was the outright purchase of the then 90-year-old Observer in 1923. He eventually owned seven newspapers - Dinamina, Silumina, Ceylon Daily News, Observer, Sunday Observer, Thinakaran and Sunday Thinakaran. Having a fine grasp of the intricacies of journalism, he sought the best journalists and editors for his newspapers and indeed, they are still household names. These individuals shared Wijewardene’s passion for journalism and high editorial standards. He also ensured that his newspapers reflected the views and concerns of all communities and religious groups.

As one of his biographers, the one-time editor of the Daily News H. A. J. Hulugalle wrote, “before he was fifty, D. R. Wijewardene had established several flourishing newspapers, built up a great business and influenced the course of the Island’s history. Perseverance, courage and a high sense of public duty were the main elements of his success.” He was a perfectionist and a trailblazer. The Lake House edifice, instantly recognised by people across the island, is a proud monument to his lasting legacy. He also installed the latest printing technology available at that time and assured a good working environment for his employees. Lake House employees enjoy some of the welfare measures he initiated to this day.

Indeed, men of his calibre are few and far between. While the newspaper industry has changed drastically since the 1950s, the ideals he cherished in the field of journalism still hold true. However, not all journalists and media outlets play by these rules. Today, print media outlets are facing stiff competition from electronic media - there was no television here during Wijewardene’s time. Newspapers have also embraced the Internet even as they compete with dedicated news websites and so-called citizen journalism websites. People are bombarded with news 24/7, on their mobiles, on television, radio and on the Net. Truth and accuracy often become casualties of this `race to be first’ and even national interests are sometimes disregarded.

Despite these developments, reports of the death of the newspaper are greatly exaggerated. Newspapers still have a story to tell - one that is more analytical, more in-depth and more trustworthy than the sound bites and video clips of the Internet age. All journalists still have to be guided by the principles that D. R. Wijewardene believed in - being bold, truthful and objective - in this noble mission.

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