“The Sri Lanka press, one of the liveliest and bluntest in Asia, has been firmly subdued by the Government.”—The New York Times of May 8, 1974.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, with little experience in politics, led her party to victory in July 1960 and became the world’s first woman Prime Minister. The Government’s slim majority affected its stability with possible cross-overs by a few. In 1940, 50s and 60s the traditional Marxist parties, LSSP, CP and Philip Gunawardena’s VLSSP held a combined strength of 20-25 parliamentary seats out of a total of 145. The combined left which held 80% of Trade Unions under their belt, was planning a general strike based on ‘21 demands.’ Astute Sirimavo, fearing the prospect of facing it, in the midst of a wafer-thin parliamentary majority, had talks with the strong Left for a coalition, an idea disliked by the right wing led by Felix Dias Bandaranaike, CP de Silva. The left leaders realizing the irrelevance of Marxist ideology in contemporary politics, accepted three portfolios in a ‘capitalist’ government including Finance. On June 11, 1964, 14 out of 19 seats held by them crossed over to the government with four leaders accepting cabinet portfolios, enhancing the strength of government.
In 1946, CP de Silva, CCS served as the Assistant Land Commissioner under DS Senanayake. The Minneriya Colonization scheme was in calamity in 1949. DS entrusted the task of reviving the system to CP, who was supported by the then Land Commissioner, C.L. Wickremasinghe – CCS [grandfather of Ranil Wickremesinghe]. The late C.P. de Silva was the Minister of Lands, Irrigation and Power and Leader of the House for 14 continuous years, except for a couple of months on two occasions. It is also significant that CP retained the post of Leader of the House in both the SLFP and UNP governments. He was denied party leadership and premiership after the tragic death of SWRD Bandaranaike in 1959, simply because he was from a different community, [Salagama caste].
Esmond Wickremasinghe, (father of Ranil and the former Marxist), after father-in-law, D. R. Wijewardene’s retirement due to ill health, joined the Associated Newspapers as its de facto boss. Esmond handled the Editorial direction at Lake House newspapers which became highly critical of the government. The SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition after consolidating power, was contemplating a takeover of Lake House. In 1964 three draft bills were presented by leftist ‘golden brains’ in Sirimavo’s government for the takeover but each time they failed. Esmond received training as a lawyer before he became the managing director of editorial operations at Lake House who made a bold effort to defend press freedom in Sri Lanka. From time to time during governments, threats to the free press [media] took numerous forms.
A Commission of Inquiry officially proposed press controls. The legislation was tabled for the fourth time for the takeover. In the latter period of 1964, the powerful print media organization led by DR Wijewardene had a strong market share. JR, the shrewd political tactician planned to nullify the bill in the house by getting two members, one from the opposition; Lakshman Rajapaksa [Mahinda’s cousin] and a UNPer to ‘sponsor’ the Bill with the idea of deferring the process. JR conspired with the SLFP Speaker, Hugh Fernando to support his objection, and during the second reading—he raised objections quoting Westminster standing orders.
The Government prorogued the parliament; the pending bills got automatically lapsed. A new session began in November ’64; as was the custom a motion was moved to thank the speech from the throne, the opposition proposed an amendment saying the people have no confidence in the government.
CP’s relations with Sirimavo Bandaranaike were affected when the old left led by Dr. NM Perera, who began interfering with the freedom of the Press [media] to endure growing deficiencies in the government. C.P. de Silva worked according to his principles. He was against the Lake House takeover, and when the government decided to place it on order paper; he decided to join with Esmond/ JR conspiracy. Though it was a very well-kept secret till then, soon it emerged that JR was leading a coup in Parliament to defeat the government on the vote on the Throne Speech. The debate ended on December 3; Deputy Speaker D.A. Rajapaksa [father of the Rajapaksa brothers] presided over the session. After the House resumed at 4.30 pm C.P. de Silva, walked in and instead of moving to Government front bench, walked to the opposition side of the House and took his seat there. A few other Members of the Government loyal to him followed. The Government lost by a single vote. Finally, CP left the Deputy leadership of the SLFP to join the UNP.
Freedom of the press was established, but only for eight years. Bandaranaike returned to power with two-thirds in 1970 and finally nationalized The Lake House group in 1973. The last independent chain of newspapers, the Sun Group, was sealed under emergency regulations in 1974 by Sirimavo. The PM, under increasing criticism about food shortages and economic complications, said that the newspapers were, “deliberately distorting truths and spread half-truths.” The only competitor, at the time, Times of Ceylon, was financially unstable and supported the government. SLBC was the only electronic media in the country.
Nobody in Parliament ever thought CP would leave the SLFP, although he spoke vehemently against the nationalizing of the press. However, on that momentous day of December 3, 1964, CP who crossed in histrionic fashion made a passionate speech supporting a free and unfettered Press. He concluded by saying, “I am foregoing all this today in order to live a free man in a free society.”
Broadcasting Regulatory Commission
The government has given the media organizations time to submit their views on the cabinet subcommittee proposal on the establishment of the Broadcasting Regulatory Commission [BRC]. The state minister says, that the proposals are to be submitted, only after being subject to amendments. Cabinet Sub-committee led by Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, submitted a report for the establishment of the BRC consisting of five members appointed by President, and the commission will appoint its own investigating committee.
Broadcasting is sending out sounds or pictures that are carried over distances using radio waves: or over the internet. There are some Draconian proposals giving powers to the commission to temporarily suspend and revoke the license of electronic media institution, if they broadcast reports detrimental to national security, national economy, and public order, with no accurate interpretations of the terms. Further, the Investigating Committee appointed by BRC will have the power to raid any media institutions after obtaining a court order.
Unfortunately, there is no one in today’s opposition that can even come closer to matching the brilliance of JR, Esmond or a CP or to take up a challenge. It is full of ‘rhetoricians’ with no action. Trust Ranil, the son of Esmond, and nephew of JR, and the only hope would not think of throttling the free media on the pretext of restricting the abuse of rights to frequencies on Broadcast Licenses.