Colombo Telegraph

Prairie Awards For Lankan Journalism: Focus On Manik De Silva

By 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

“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)

Back to Home page