Upali Wijewardene and the Birth Pangs of THE ISLAND

Vijitha Yapa – who was the Founder Editor of THE ISLAND

The person at the other end of the phone calling from Nallur was very angry. “Mr Editor, you have killed me in your paper today”. I did not ask him where he was speaking from, as he may treat it as an insult. I did not know what he was speaking about and asked what story he was referring to and after listening to him, told  him to call me back in half an hour. There were no ubiquitous  mobile phones at that time nor easy access to telephones in the eighties.

The story revolved around the Coroner of Nallur, Mr Francis, committing suicide and Dr Watson  performing the autopsy. The call was from Mr Francis who said it was the other way round. I asked the sub editor  for the original story submitted by the Nallur correspondent and what the sub editor had  edited and compared it with what had been printed in the Island  that morning.

Mr Francis was correct. The Nallur correspondent had said that Dr Watson committed suicide and Coroner  Francis performed the autopsy. I screamed angrily at the sub editor and asked him, “What the hell have you done? Why did you do this and what can I tell this Coroner?” The sub editor submitted his lame excuse. “I tried to contact the correspondent and could not get through to Nallur. This seemed a ridiculous story and I felt the Nallur correspondent had got it all wrong. Why should a medical doctor who makes pots of money commit suicide? I felt it is the coroner, a poorly paid public servant, who had every reason to commit suicide and changed the story to reflect that”.

 It was the most incredible explanation and he was a senior sub editor. What could I do? I apologized to Mr Francis when he phoned and said I am carrying an apology to him in the next day’s newspaper. This is the only time I ever apologized to anybody because I am a strong believer that facts printed must be correct and the editorial staff should be fully responsible to see that the true facts should be  followed to the letter. The story is recollected on the 40th anniversary of the Sunday Island and it is an indication of the trials we faced and the difficulties we encountered.
Upali Wijewardene had asked me to be the Editor of the Sunday Island in March  1981 when I submitted my resignation as the Media Officer at the GCEC (Greater Colombo Economic Commission) he chaired. From  April 1981 I  had accepted an offer from Dow Jones and Co of USA  to look after their interests by procuring advertisements for the Wall Street Journal and also to import and distribute the Asian Wall Street Journal in Sri Lanka.

But even by August  he had not found anyone and he sent his Mercedes Benz to my residence and asked me to come immediately to his home. There he said, ” I want you to be the Founder editor of  the Sunday Island which will be born on October 4,  because I have confidence in you”. I felt very sorry because here was a man who had wealth and power but was frustrated because he could not find an editor.

I told him I will accept the offer for six months until he found another person but as I had started my own business and it was difficult for me to devote full time to the newspaper. I asked for a virtually  impossible five figure salary, the highest for any journalist , a car with a driver to take my children to school and since I had some commitments with  some foreign newspapers for journalistic  assignments I requested leave whenever the need arose. He said okay  and “You can  start tomorrow”.  I told him that to start the newspaper I will need to recruit immediately and cannot waste time on red tape. He gave me permission to approach any journalist and where necessary to double their salaries on the condition that they start work immediately from the next day.

I contacted many of the well known journalists and asked them to come for an interview and basically within a week we had the staff. It was a bold move because we were asking people in secure jobs to give up their positions in other newspapers and commence work with us within 24 hours. Ours was an establishment which was not publishing any newspapers except a weekly cartoon paper. The majority of those approached had the faith  to take the plunge and we began work immediately.

Because of the problems we faced there was not even a dummy copy which we could produce before the date of publication,  October 4. But somehow the birth took place that day though the first issues did not reach the public in the morning but late in the evening. I had returned home about 1 o’clock in the morning having finished the editorial work  and was shocked to find that even by the afternoon it had not even  been printed!. I rushed to the press and found that the plates were never sent to the printing press in Homagama because the technical staff  were found wanting. There were blank pages and I ordered that some ads should be repeated and also some articles and sent the pages.

Though late the paper was received very well. It was in colour and we were the first to do computer printing of a newspaper in Sri Lanka. The pages were clean and people appreciated the pictures and layout. Gamini Weerakoon was the deputy editor, Rienzie Wijeratne was the pictures editor and Ajith Samaranayaka was the editorial writer  responsible for features.

Gamini Weerakoon’s wife Rajitha was working for the Sunday Observer and I had to tell Gamini to make sure he does not talk in his sleep.

We also got some people from the Times group. Some of them were the first females to be recruited to the Upali Group head office, an all male domain. The ladies who came from the Times newspaper sought permission everyday to go to Fort about midday. They never explained why and I had to finally ask them the reason for this as our transport was limited to one vehicle at that time. They all appeared as a delegation in my office and said sheepishly,” We have to go to Fort because there is no toilet for women at Upali’s!”. It is an area which we had neglected and I immediately phoned Mr Upali Wijewardene and within 24 hours a special toilet with locks in the male domain was made available to the ladies.

Within one month of our publication Mr Wijewardene came to the office and said, ” I want to start the daily newspaper from November 16″. I was lucky not to have suffered a heart attack as we still had teething problems. The technical office once came and asked me why I could not give Page one and the sports page two days earlier like the feature pages so that he could give the paper on time.

Mr Wijewardene would not change his mind to postpone the commencement of the daily. We gathered the staff together and told them the news, recruited more journalists and the newspaper began as scheduled on November 16, 1981. Mr Peter Harland from UK assisted us in those early days and veteran planter Leslie Dharmaratne was the CEO of Upali Newspapers. He had no experience in journalism and there were practical issues with regard to the staff. The staff wanted a festival advance but the CEO was quite adamant that it could not be done because there were very heavy expenses with the starting of the newspaper and no funds were available. This virtually led to a strike but luckily it was averted though one or two Sinhala journalists decided to leave or were asked to leave.

 It was the exposures of corrupt practices in The Island which caught the interest of the readers and the circulation soared . Mr Upali Wijewardene was the ideal publisher as he did not interfere in running the newspaper. He thought that President J.R. Jayewardene will support him in his endeavour to  become the MP for Kamburupitiya but unfortunately Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa opposed it. This led to practical problems and Mr Wijewardene certainly did not help himself when replying to a query by Mervyn de Silva, editor of the Guardian and said  his hero was SWRD Bandaranaike. J.R. Jayewardene was very annoyed and because of various difficulties, Upali Wijewardene decided to resign as the Director General of the GCEC.

 When Hector Kobbekaduwa was chosen as the SLFP candidate for the presidential election in 1982 Mr Wijewardene felt that since Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike had been disqualified from running, the one person who should be contesting the elections from the SLFP was her son Anura Bandaranaike. Anura opposed this and said he could not go against the SLFP. Mr Wijewardene then  suggested that Anura should form his own party and that the necessary finances for that operation could be found. But Anura did not take up the offer though it reached the ears of JR, who was visibly annoyed.

Perhaps one of the most sensational stories that the Sunday Island exposed was how foreign minister ACS Hameed had used funds from South Korea through the Sri Lanka High Commission in London. It was   used to procure bagpipes for schools in Akurana in  Mr Hameed’s electorate. JR and Mr Hameed were on an official visit to China at that time. Mr Hameed told me later it was  an embarrassment to  Mr Jayewardene who queried it and ordered  Mr Hameed to credit all the money that he had in the special account to the President’s Fund.

 Another important story was how cricketer Bandula Warnapura decided to take a rebel Sri Lanka team to South Africa. Officially Upali newspapers  opposed that visit editorially but carried news of it. Minister Gamini Dissanayake was very annoyed by this and phoned me and told me to stop carrying news of  these rebels and said the other newspapers had agreed to his request. I refused and said editorially we condemned the rebel tour, but felt we could not ignore the need to inform our readers of what was happening in South Africa.

Mr Dissanayake was very annoyed and said, “If that is your attitude  I am going to speak to your publisher”. I knew Mr Upali Wijewardene was not in Colombo that morning but that evening he phoned me and asked whether Gamini Dissanayake had asked me to stop publicity for the rebels  and wanted to know my reactions to it. I told him the facts and what he said about contacting the publisher. Mr Wijewardene said he had told Gamini Dissanayake that he does not tell the minister  what to do in Cabinet or how to run his ministry. He said  he wanted  Mr Dissanayake not to interfere in the running of his independent newspaper.

Mr Wijewardene then  asked me what news we had of the Sri Lanka rebels in South Africa. I  said that there was a picture by  Reuters of Bandula Warnapura and colleagues emerging  out of the airport in South Africa with their luggage loaded on trolleys. He asked me where I was placing the picture and I replied that it will be on page 14, the Sports page. He laughed and then said, “Why don’t you put it on page 1” . That was Upali Wijewardene, the man who feared no one.

 Many of the journalists achieved fame through the pages of the newspaper. The paper  was a beacon of hope to the minorities, specially the Tamils, who felt they were being hounded. One of the boldest decisions I made was to ask DBS Jeyaraj to begin a column in the Sunday Island and to call it “Behind the Cadjan Curtain,’ an adaptation of China’s  bamboo curtain .The column was well read and well received.

Ajith Samaranayake

Ajith Samaranayake was another great asset. The editorial he wrote in the newspaper soon after the 1983 July riots and the appeal to people for sanity and to think afresh was read out in full by Mr Maithripala Senanayake in Parliament. It was Ajith who asked Jeyraj who was working at Veerakesari, the Tamil newspaper, to apply for a job at the Sunday Island. I was impressed by the clean shaven Jeyaraj’s performance in the test I gave him and recruited him. Later DBS said  that impish Ajith had advised him  to shave off his moustache and beard as I did not like such growth on the faces of journalists, which he realised later was a complete lie.

 Ajith had his flings through words and once got into an argument with Gamini Fonseka. Initially the articles from Gamini and from Ajith created interest but Gamini’s replies  became a bit boring in the latter stages. I told Ajith the time has come to end the series. He agreed and I allowed  him to do the final column. His final comment was brief but rich with content. He said he was  stopping these arguments  with Mr Gamini Fonseka because trying to convince him was  like playing a Veena to a deaf elephant. Gamini never replied to that because to those who knew his history, knew there was a rich meaning in that one sentence pregnant with opportunities.

There are many more stories to tell but space and time are precious and tributes to the individual journalists who made the Sunday Island a paper the readers looked forward to read is difficult to put down on paper. But the rich history of the Sunday Island which began 40 years ago  has to be recorded and I wish the Editor and journalists of the newspaper all the best for the future.

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