21 May, 2022


Prairie Awards For Lankan Journalism: Focus On Manik De Silva

By Shelton A. Gunaratne

Dr. Shelton A. Gunaratne

Dr. Shelton A. Gunaratne

Because newspapers in Sri Lanka hide names of their editors and publishers from the general public while they clamor for legislation necessary for open government, I decided to mull over the dispositions/intentional actions (samkhara) aggregate of a few journalists/ publishers who have dedicated their lives for the sake of the Fourth Estate because of their love for journalism rather than for pecuniary benefits or fame. I continue to reap the benefits of their dedication electronically even though I live in a remote Prairie town.

All sentient beings– including the journalists, publishers, politicians, and assorted criminals–are composites of the Five Aggregates that Buddhists identify as namarupa (rupa = material form; nama = mind comprising sensation/feelings, perception, dispositions, and consciousness). Therefore, a being’s intentional actions or dispositions (sankhara) are conditioned by the interactions of these aggregates. Journalism reflects the intentional action of the journalist/publisher, who should use his/her mind consciousness to discipline all five of the aggregates of craving.

I will use the Five Aggregates framework to assess the type of journalism fostered by a selected few who have phenomenologically understood the folly of craving and attachment because a “being” (often identified as “I,” “me,” “s/he,” etc.) is an illusion of these aggregates, all of which contribute to interminable dukkha (suffering) associated with their anatta (no-self/asoulity) and anicca (impermanence/ inconstancy) characteristics.

Leafy Spurge

To the newspapers in Sri Lanka for their uncritical subservience to Western news values– impact, proximity, timeliness, conflict, the unusual and the bizarre, currency, and relevance –thereby making news a commodity rather a social good intended to lay down the foundation of a news culture conducive to promote cultural and social development of the country. Our most recent book Mindful Journalism and News Ethics clearly presents Lankan journalists food for thought for initiating a new news culture that might propel journalism into an inestimable social good that many global journalists would want to emulate.

Manik de Silva

Manik de Silva

“Thumbs down” to the current state of journalism in Sri Lanka because so far it has failed to produce even a single quality newspaper in any of the three official languages of the country — English, Sinhalese or Tamil — reflecting the characteristics of mindful journalism. Most of the influential journalists in the past who shaped our news culture were shamelessly uneducated on Asian history and philosophy as they reified Western science, culture and ideas. They ignored the seminal principles on morality/ethics propounded in the Dhammapada and Bhagavad Gita and invariably looked for intellectual guidance from the West.

Senior editor Manik de Silva, who has clung on to journalism like a leech (no offence meant) despite the poor salaries that journalists earn from the handful of newspaper groups, claims that he earned more money as a stringer for the foreign press, particularly the Associated Press, than as the editor of the island’s premier Daily News in the mid-1980s. Presenting a paper at a media workshop on communication challenges held at the Sri Lanka Institute in 1987, he used the analytical skills he learned during his year at Harvard to trace the country’s poor quality of journalism to the following:

  • Uneven quality of the news staff
  • Inability to attract “the best and the brightest” into journalism in the absnce of financial incentives
  • Various constraints that bureaucrats and managers both in the private and state sectors placed on newsgathering believing that “no news is good news”
  • Lack of a reliable communication system [which I believe is no longer valid]
  • Inadequacy of the journalists’ language skills, particularly in English [although I believe that high-level English skills are not vital for vernacular papers]
  • Inadequate attention to business, human interest and other areas because of the journalists’ preoccupation with the state sector (government departments, corporations, etc.) and institutions like parliament, courts, and political parties
  • Reluctance of journalists to do higher-level investigative reporting that shows enterprise (Layer 2 type), as well as skills in analysis and interpretation (Layer 3 type) [inasmuch as they find it easier to get by with reporting surface facts–Layer 1 type– without digging deeper to discover the buried facts]
  • High cost of transport that discourages reporters from traveling to news spots without depending on office transportation
  • Limitations placed by the political orientation of different newspapers shutting out news from groups and parties that consider such media as hostile
  • Lack of an efficient information dissemination system in most private and public sector institutions

Even though we are in the digital era with smart phones, I-pads, and other electronic devices at the disposal of most journalists making their fact gathering and news dissemination easier, the 11 reasons that Manik highlighted almost three decades ago still remain valid in varying degrees. But Manik is thinking of news/journalism as a commodity only whereas I consider news/journalism as primarily a social good with emphasis on morality and ethics, concentration, wisdom and compassion–the genre that we now call mindful journalism. While conceding and admiring Manik’s contribution to journalism over a career span of more than half century that includes 20 years as the editor of the Sunday Island, I regret to observe that he failed to help foster a new news culture in Sri Lanka because of his obsequiousness to Western norms of journalism as critiqued by scholars like Johan Galtung.

Prairie Roses 

To Manik de Silva, the septuagenarian editor of the Sunday Island for his lifetime dedication to journalism in Sri Lanka. In an interview with Sanjana Hattotuwa of Groundviews (on March 7, 2010), Manik, “the most senior and longest-serving editor of an English-language newspaper in Sri Lanka,” confessed that his “very liberal father” Walwin A. de Silva, a former director of education and brother of renowned Trotskyite parliamentarian Colvin R. de Silva, arranged for him to work with the Observer newspaper at the age of 19 while awaiting the results of the University Entrance Examination, which he failed. However, his “great, good fortune” to work under the Denzil Peiris, editor of the Observer from 1960-1973 helped him to release the dukkha resulting from his academic failure to enter the university though he excelled in writing as a school boy at the prestigious Royal College in Colombo.

Like numerous other journalists, Manik was obsessed with craving (tanha) and attachment (upadana) to rise up and cling on to his professional career.

He found journalism a fascinating field that enabled him “to get a ringside view” of what’s happening in the country. In the old parliament, he savored the cut and thrust of the oratorical clashes of “good people” like Dudley Senanayake (1911-73), J. R. Jayewardene (1906-97), N. M. Perera (1905-79), Colvin R. de Silva (1907-87), Philip Gunawardena (1901-73), Felix Dias Bandaranaike (1930-85) and Pieter Keuneman (1917-97), who were among the “best” in the world. The ‘60s constituted the golden decade of the Lankan parliament, Manik told Hattotuwa. After “hammering each other” in debates on the floor, they would repair to the parliamentary restaurant and enjoy their tea together. Since then, while the number of parliamentarians has increased, their quality has precipitously declined primarily because of “patronage giving and patronage taking,” Manik rued.

I suspect that Manik’s ability to get political scoops through his connections with the powerful politicians of the day, thanks to his uncle Colvin and dad’s Royal College schoolmate J. R. Jayewardene who became the all-powerful executive president of the country in 1978 after the UNP secured a two-thirds majority in the 1977 elections, facilitated his job as one of the Lake House reporters assigned to cover the parliamentary beat in the 1960s and the 1970s. By letting Manik have his byline with his parliamentary reports and other “scoops,” Denzil Peiris egged on the young man to elevate his illusionary self-esteem resulting in a degree of “arrogance” (dosa) toward his colleagues.
 I first met Manik in 1962, when I joined Lake House soon after I graduated from the University of Ceylon. During our five years together at Lake House, Manik (together with Thalif Deen, Neville de Silva, Leila Joseph, Phillip Fernando and a few other non-graduate journalists like H. L. D. Mahindapala, Nalin Fernando and Nihal Ratnaike) worked primarily for the Observer while I (together with Chris Gooneratne, Phillip Coorey, T. Sivaprakasam, Indres Allalasunderam, and a few others) worked primarily for the Daily News. I resigned from Lake House in mid-1967 after completing a one-year Fellowship at the World Press Institute then affiliated with Macalester College, Saint Paul.

Manik had a similar opportunity to spend a year in the United States in 1972, when he got the offer of a Jefferson Fellowship to immerse in communication scholarship at the Harvard Center for International Affairs. I suspect that having failed to get a university education, Manik made good use of his Harvard year to prove that he was no intellectual dummy. The same year, I earned a doctorate in mass communication from the University of Minnesota. (Incidentally, it was also in 1972 that Lake House let Thalif Deen to do a master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University on a Fulbright scholarship, whereafter he settled down in New York as a bureau chief for the Inter Press Service.) But unlike me who quit Lake House after completing my WPI training because Ernest Corea, the Daily News editor (1964-70) refused to grant me another year’s no-pay leave to complete graduate studies in journalism, Malik dutifully returned to Lake House to continue his journalism career as a state employee.

Manik’s Harvard year had the blessings of Mervyn de Silva whom the Lake House management headed by chairman Ranjith Wijeyawardene appointed as the chief editor of the Daily News in 1970. Mervyn’s journalism style and views were consonant with those of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led United Front coalition (hathhavula) government formed in 1970 replacing that of Dudley Senanayake’s United National Party, which came into power after the March 1965 elections, which soundly rejected Mrs. Bandaranaike’s vituperative campaign to take-over the Lake House newspapers because they allegedly served as UNP mouthpieces (pachapatra).

I was the Daily News reporter who, together with D. C. Karunaratne of the Dinamina, covered the Bandaranaike election campaign in 1965. Fearing a 1965-rype setback if they had highlighted the priority they placed on the takeover.

I suspect that Mervyn’s appointment as the editor of the Lake House flagship was intended as a peace gesture to mollify the new United Front (hathhavula) government, in hopes of preventing the possibility of a takeover. Moreover, the management elevated Mervyn by shunting the diehard UNP sympathizer Ernest Corea from the editor’s chair of the Daily News to that of its sister newspaper, the Observer, when Denzil Peiris vacated the position. Mervyn’s elevation, however, failed to scuttle the state takeover of Lake House in 1973, when the new dispensation anointed Mervyn as the editor in chief of all Lake House papers. The details pertaining to the takeover appear in my monograph titled “The Taming of the Press in Sri Lanka” which the Association or Education in Journalism published as Journalism Monographs No. 39 in May 1975.

Both Mervyn and Ernest, who habitually flaunted their verbal skills and professed punditry unaware of the mental distress (dukkha) they caused others, had to face the consequences of their intentional actions (embedded in their sankhara aggregate).

[Ernest Corea was proud to reveal that he was a descendent of Edirille Rala who was crowned the king of Kotte and Sitawaka in 1596. Both Ernest and Mervyn came from a Westernized Christian background and had no inclination to foster a Lankan news culture conducive to the emergence of what we now call mindful journalism. Corea, who understood that his prospects of recovery under the hathhavula were very dim, emigrated overseas in 1973 to avoid further reprisals (dukkha). After he spent a short stint as features editor of the Straits Times in Singapore, the UNP government of President Jayewardene rewarded his service as a propagandist by appointing him as Sri Lanka ambassador to the U. S. and high commissioner to Canada.].

Mervyn’s mind-consciousness also failed to discipline the power of the five aggregates that caused his downfall in 1976, just before the abject defeat of the UF government and the emergence of UNP leader Jayewardene as the first executive president of Sri Lanka. Following a tiff with A. K. Premadasa, the Matara-born legal luminary whom the UF government appointed as the first chairman (1973-77) of Lake House under state control, Mervyn left Lake House to become the editor in chief of the bankrupt Times newspaper group, which the Jayewardene government placed under state control in 1978 and sold to Ranjit Wijeyawardene as compensation for forfeiting his ownership of Lake House. Mervyn found solace as the editor of a weekly rag, the Lanka Guardian, which depended heavily on donations from various foundations.

Manik was quite aware of the impending uncertainties that journalists would face following the state takeover in 1973, the year he returned to work. In the 2010 interview with Hattotuwa, Manik recalled the prophetic observation of journalist D. C. Karunaratne in 1972 that from then onwards Lake House would have “a convulsion after each election” proved to be accurate.

Mervyn’s rise and fall at lake House coincided with the rise and fall of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s United Front government, of which Manik’s uncle Colvin was a minister. J. R. Jayewardene, who ousted the Bandaranaike government, was also a friend of Manik’s father. He probably figured out that if he played his cards with aplomb, he could not be a loser whichever political party was in power. This line of reasoning explains his inclination for practicing a non-aggressive but yet adversarial type of journalism that reflects a healthy degree of tension between the government and the press. In the Hattotuwa interview, he asserted that good governance required investigative reporting, which was not possible to practice without causing political distress (dukkha) for the government.

*To be continued..

*Shelton A. Gunaratne – Professor of communication emeritus, MSUM, and lead author of Mindful Journalism and News Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (New York: Routledge, 2015)

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Every media actively talks about Good Governance but it seems that is not for them but for others!!! Therefore every media should adopt principle based best practices rather-then waiting someone say what to do (possibly the government through regulations etc.). No media should not think that there will be no check and balance!

    I have listed out few suggestions which may help to people to obtain best information (every thing may have plus and minus)
    1. Every news/article should back with the owner identity and also editor details
    2. Paid news/article should disclose the details and it should be highlighted
    3. If false news published it is not enough to just issue a apologist notice next day, proper mechanism should be establish to received justice
    4. There should be cut off on holding shares in media institutions and takeover must be scrutinized
    5.Every key news/articles should be back with source/ref. (online possible)
    6. There should be competent commission which should monitor independence of media and also monitor how transparent these medias with check and balance
    7.Medias should be held accountable on every news/article they publish

    Media freedom is not the license given them to publish what ever they wish and it is also not the license given to intimidate people via news etc…

  • 1

    The learned professori’s dhammadesana on Sri Lankan
    journalism would have made better reading if he
    only dealt with Manik de Silva. After all that is
    what he has done, of course, bringing in a great
    deal of Buddhist ideology into it. There is nothing
    wrong in that. I wish he preaches the same to those in the
    Washington Post and The New York Times. After all
    he has taught journalism to the yankees, not Buddhism.

  • 1

    ““Thumbs down” to the current state of journalism in Sri Lanka because so far it has failed to produce even a single quality newspaper in any of the three official languages of the country — English, Sinhalese or Tamil — reflecting the characteristics of mindful journalism. Most of the influential journalists in the past who shaped our news culture were shamelessly uneducated on Asian history and philosophy as they reified Western science, culture and ideas. “

    I would say Manik de Silva’s Sunday Island is the closest thing to a quality newspaper in Sri Lanka. It does not have any apparent bias, and caters to all shades of opinion. The editorial page currently carries Rajan Phillips one one side and the incorrigible Mahinda loyalist C.A.Chandraprema on the other. I remember Malinda Seneviratna contributing to the Sunday Island long ago.

    A few comments on some other English papers:
    The Daily Mirror has a soft spot for Champika Ranawaka. It will not publish any negative comments about him. Believe me, I have tried. The editorials seemed to be written by different writers in rotation , often with diametrically opposite content. The former lady Editor’s English was not all that great.
    The Sunday Times , weighing almost a kilo, has the best second-hand value. But it has it’s own biases. For one, it is anti-Indian. Currently it makes a lot of noise about CEPA and the proposed bridge.
    Also it seems to take seriously the views of Gangaramaya Podi Hamuduruwo who in a recent article seems to advocate that TV should
    carry more bana preaching.

    Professor Gunaratne even in his remote Prairie town should know that there is no perfect media. Even the much-touted US media is as controlled as the old Soviet media, but in a more sophisticated way. Just try preaching Socialism in the Washington post, or say something against Israel in the New York Times!

  • 1

    This Shelton Guna-something chap seems to have a chip on the shoulder and an inferiority complex when it comes to Manik. On this point about Manik I endorse what ‘old codger’ and Michael say.

    The best part of this piece is the recap of Manik’s 10 points – and by the way how did in become 11 points for this bloke?

    • 0

      Yes I did rather ignore that part. Many Buddhists in their doddering years tend to see everything in terms of Buddhist theory. I have never heard of Mindful Journalism before, and it seems pretty impractical from the description given.

  • 0

    simple there is no single independent media in Sri Lanka
    Media means
    -Naduth Hamaduruwange
    -Baduth Hamaduruwange

  • 0

    Let this Professor, who has gone nut loose,
    go and feed the cows and bulls in his praire.

    Please refrain from giving us the agony of
    understanding your diatribe under the guise
    of religion and journalistic righteousness.

    It stinks!! Just like the journalism you

  • 3

    Manik de Silva Editor of the Sunday Island is one of the finest journalist in the business today. We readers should be grateful to Manik for still continuing his career at the Sunday Island as the paper under him has maintained a very high standard of journalism and we dread the day for Sunday island when finally Manik steps down.Manik belongs to the old school of journalists and last of that brilliant line up. Talking frankly Sunday Island is surviving mainly because of Manik and the day Manil calls it a day I too will buy the last copy of the Sunday Island.
    I am sure Manik is there purely for the love of his profession and the paper should be grateful to have such an editor for I presume a tuppence.
    Well done Manik carry on and just ignore this voice from the Prairie and his any critique of you is just a “voice in the wilderness”

  • 2

    Talking about newspapers the Wijeya group is owned by the Wijewardenas who made their money during the British times ( Nobodys who became somebodies fame). They are closely related to Ranil Wickramasinghe the current prime Minister. The son of the chairman of this group is a UNP minister.
    But during the times of MR rule did they fight for democracy and justice ? They just swam along making money. The cynicism of these people can be seen from the feather on their cap-The HI Magazine !

  • 1

    It’a true that journalistic standards in SL are not very high, but it is not true that SL “has failed to produce even a single quality newspaper in any of the three official languages of the country”. In my estimate the Sinhala weekly, RAVAYA is a high quality newspaper.

    • 1

      Readers , please read the very first Editorial of LANKADEEPA , though in Sinhalese- the Sinhalese Newspaper that competed with “DINAMINA” of Lake House, then run by a group headed by Times of Ceylon of one Villavarayan.I cannot remember who the Editor was, but he had studied Lexicography in Munich & Leipzig in Germany. It spoke for our high Journalistic standards of the time. Years later that journalist’s brother wrote a piece in the column called “VAGATHUGA” criticising some act of the Governor General, Sir Oliver.My mind fails for names now.We heard that the writer was invited to “Queens House” for lunch on the day after , since Sir Oliver wanted to clarify matters to that sub-editor. Those days we journalists were respected. Those days The Times building was the tallest building in Colombo as well as in the whole of Ceylon.

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