Volume 2 Number 2
Journalism in Shri Lanka
01 February 1989

How The Island newspaper was born is a story by itself. But what followed was the most fascinating job I had been involved with, at a crucial period in the nation's history.

When millionaire business tycoon Upali Wijewardene of Sri Lanka asked in 1981 whether I would edit his new paper, I asked for one condition: `No interference in the independent newspaper I will create.' He promised he would give me a free hand. I had an office, but no staff, and he wanted the paper out in a month. How The Island newspaper was born is a story by itself. But what followed was the most fascinating job I had been involved with, at a crucial period in the nation's history.

Upali stuck to his word, sometimes reminding me of my conditions. Once, when a part of the construction of an international hotel in Colombo collapsed, our reporters, who were the first on the scene, were manhandled by the security staff. Miraculously not one of the construction workers had been injured, but I was furious that journalists, who have a duty to report to their readers, had been prevented from doing this duty. The picture and the report would be on page one.

Then came telephone calls from the hotel and from government officials. They wanted the incident played down, as it might affect investment etc. I stood firm, until a call came from a close member of Upali Wijewardene's family. Could it not be played down, she asked, as the management were Upali's friends? He was not in. I shifted the story to page three.

Within an hour, a call came from Upali. `Did one of my family call you?' he asked. When I told him what I had done, he said, `I did not make you Editor to change things according to the whims and fancies or friendships of my family or me. Do what you should have done.' The story and picture were on page one next day.

Unfortunately, at the age of 44, when flying back from Malaysia in his private Lear jet, he disappeared without trace. Wreckage from his plane was found in 1983 off the Indonesian coast.

My independent views were treated with suspicion by the new management and there were many arguments. On my return from an overseas trip in 1986, I was informed that during my absence a decision had been taken to appoint above me a journalist whom, ironically, I had recommended to Upali for recruitment.

I was in a comfortable job, with a five figure salary, the highest paid journalist in Sri Lanka. I realized the new appointment would mean a change in policy. I discussed the issue with my wife, Lalana, who said to me, `It is better for people to remember you for your independent views than as one who stuck on to a job because the pay was good and gave up those views.' That night I resigned.

With only three English daily newspapers, such jobs were limited. But six months later, a publisher who wanted to revive the then defunct Sunday Times asked whether I would be the Editor. My condition was `an independent policy', which was agreed to, and today, within 18 months of publication, the paper is the second largest circulation Sunday paper.

I have learnt in life that when one door closes, another opens. Each day is an opportunity to learn. One is not always right, but there is no greater joy than fighting for one's beliefs, with the pen as weapon in the search for truth.

There have been trying moments. Like the time the paper said there would be a devaluation of 20 per cent and the authorities procuted me for stealing cabinet secrets and trying to create financial havoc! The maximum sentence was two years in jail, but luckily the case was withdrawn.

Looking back on my life, two incidents stand out in my memory as lessons which have reminded me on many occasions of what ultimate responsibility means and how wrong prejudices can be.

The first was at the farm attached to the Moral Re-Armament centre in Panchgani, India, where I was working in 1970. On my first day, a room was being prepared for 400 chicks. I felt the nails on the window grill were not strong enough. I told my Indian colleague, but he took no notice. The next day, two polecats jumped in and killed 146 chicks. I gloated over how I had advised the Indian, who had more experience, and condemned him. The manager of the farm, a New Zealander called John Porteous, was on holiday. He returned, listened to the facts and said, `Let's be quiet and listen to our inner voice.'

After the silence, he spoke first and said, `Though I was not here, I am responsible for the disaster and the chicks must be replaced.' The Indian apologized for not attending to the window and said he was responsible too. I was uncomfortable because the thought that had occurred to me was, `If you felt the window was not secure, why did you not persist and attend to it? Don't blame others.' The three of us decided to pay for the new chicks. John taught me that management means being responsible whether one is on the job or not, and accepting responsibility when things go wrong, instead of always trying to find reasons why one is not to blame.

Government hospital
The second incident was when my wife and I were in the Philippines in 1978 and she was having her first baby. Everyone we knew seemed to have gone to expensive private hospitals for their confinements. We had little money and anyway wanted to identify with those who could not afford special treatment. So we decided to try the free government hospital. It was the first time a foreigner had asked for her baby to be delivered in a government hospital, we were told.

The care given to us in that hospital was amazing. As I saw my wife with the newborn child, I thought of another child who was born in a stable centuries ago. My wife smiled, held my hand and said, `You often quote a Buddhist saying, "Pain exists to measure pleasure by." It was a joy to give birth to our son here and I am so glad we chose this hospital. I would have been so worried wondering how we could have paid the bills if I had had the child elsewhere.'

Vijitha Yapa is Editor of the `Sunday Times' in Colombo and correspondent for `The Times', London.

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