D R Wijewardene | Daily News

D R Wijewardene

You would not be reading this newspaper today if not for the valiant efforts of Don Richard Wijewardene, the founder of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL). The fact that this newspaper has disseminated up-to-the-minute news and shaped public opinion for 100 years is a testimony to the sagacity of D R Wijewardene, the undisputed doyen of the newspaper industry in Sri Lanka. Indeed, it would not be incorrect to say that he started a socio-cultural revolution through his newspapers that stood – and still stand for freedom and free expression.

The socio-political milieu in which Wijewardene started a flourishing newspaper empire in the early 1900s is very different from today’s political and media landscape. It was a period when Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was known during the colonial period, was struggling to gain independence from England. As prominent personalities joined hands irrespective of any differences to agitate for independence, Wijewardene selected the then nascent medium of the newspaper to take their message to the masses. It was a unique approach at the time.

Wijewardene realized that addressing the local audience through vernacular newspapers alone was not enough - it was essential to drive home the growing force of the independence movement to the colonial administrators. Hence his decision to launch the English-language Daily News in 1918. Not surprisingly, the newspapers he founded and nurtured were in the forefront of the independence movement. No one could ignore the power of the free press at the forefront of the independence movement.

Wijewardene, who refused a knighthood from the British Empire lest it interfere with his quest for freedom for his Motherland, died just two years after Sri Lanka gained independence. But he was contended that his dream of an independent Sri Lanka had come true and proud of the very significant role he played in that long struggle. His name is forever associated with the independence struggle of Sri Lanka. If ever there was an example for the power of the press to shape public discourse and change the very course of history, D.R. Wijewardene and Lake House can be cited without any hesitation.

Before and after gaining independence, Wijewardene’s newspapers reflected the public mood and stood for their aspirations. He obtained the services of the best journalists of the time to fulfill this mission. Like Wijewardene himself, they too were committed to telling the truth to the people. They were not afraid to call a spade a spade. His cherished ideals would guide the destiny of the ANCL for many decades to come.

Wijewardene was one of those rare individuals who had journalism in his veins and in his heart. He realized that more media outlets necessarily lead to a more vibrant democracy. He would indeed have been delighted to see his son and nephew enter the newspaper industry, because every new newspaper was yet another voice for the voiceless masses in his opinion.

Today, the times have changed and so has the newspaper industry. This industry now has to compete with television, radio and of course, the Internet and social media. Newspapers have to stay relevant in the age of instant news and sound bites. Newspapers around the world have downsized and some survive only online.

The new media landscape has completely changed the way newspapers work. Having a print edition is no longer adequate – a newspaper has to be on the web with audio and video clips, do podcasts, maintain an app, send mobile news alerts and be active on Twitter and Facebook.

Yet, the newspaper as envisioned by Wijewardene has a much bigger role to play. Even as electronic and online media cover the news in a fleeting way, the newspaper’s role is to probe in-depth the issues of the day. This primary role has not changed much from the days of Wijewardene. Indeed, the concepts of journalism and good reporting that he espoused will not disappear even if printed newspapers disappear some day in the future.

Today’s journalists need some qualities that Wijewardene had in ample measure – courage and conviction. These qualities are needed more than ever in a world where being a journalist has become rather dangerous and sometimes life-threatening. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 65 journalists were killed last year around the globe. While this is the least number of journalists assassinated in 14 years, it is still a huge number. A total of 262 journalists were also jailed in 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The first lesson in journalism is “no story is worth your life” but many journalists defy this in the quest for the truth.

The truth was at the heart of Wijewardene’s journey in the newspaper industry. He fought falsehoods with facts, dishonesty with honesty and subterfuge with exposure through the ANCL newspapers which continue this tradition to this day. Fearless and relentless in what he did, Wijewardene was a consummate professional who never took “no” for an answer. There are many lessons that we can draw from his eventful life even today, when we mark his 132nd birth anniversary.


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