Re-visiting the Press Commission Report (1964)
Posted on April 24th, 2012

By Senaka Weeraratna

” The Press is an instrument which is primarily meant to serve the real interests of a country. It can also be misused. If we were not satisfied that the newspapers of the Lake House and the Times groups were guilty of anti -national and anti – Buddhist conduct on a large scale, we would not have recommended a drastic change in the ownership of the newspapers belonging to these groups. From the evidence placed before us we are satisfied that the existing newspapers did not hesitate to fabricate, suppress, slant or distort news and views whenever it suited them. They have been further guilty of anti “”‚ national and anti – Buddhist activities, which are more serious than the earlier mentioned lapses on their part. Indeed, the most vehement critics of the present activities of the Press were the Buddhists and some of their organisations, and we are satisfied that their grievances are genuine and should be removed.

Buddhist leaders have been falsely accused of being intolerant. Their hopes and ambitions receive scant consideration, and the rightful place due to their religion has being denied to it by the newspapers. This has been deliberately done in order to help the minorities, in particular, the Christian minorities, to perpetuate the unjust privileges acquired by them during the last four centuries at the expense of the Buddhist Majority. “

Paragraph 212, Page 90 Final Report of the Press Commission (1964)

The Final Report of the Press Commission (1964) is a significant historical document. It is the first Public Report that exposed among other things, the anti – national and anti -Buddhist conduct of mostly the English language newspapers of the Lake House (also known as the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd: which was then privately owned) and the Times of Ceylon Ltd. groups. This Report provides a rare insight into the conduct of the Press in Sri Lanka with a special emphasis on the factors that influence policy formulation and editorial direction of local newspapers. It also shows with reference to a series of instances of abuse of Press freedom, the manner in which a wrong impression is created in the minds of the readers on matters of national importance, through slanting, distortion arid fabrication of letters, and by various editorial stratagem.

Mr. William Gopallawa. Governor- General, appointed the Press Commission upon a recommendation of the Government of Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, in September 1963. The Commission was required to investigate and report on a series of matters concerning the ownership, management and reform of the National Press, pursuant to the expression of grave dissatisfaction by the public, Buddhist organisations and Members of Parliament about the state and activities of the Press.

A former Supreme Court Judge, Mr. Justice K.D. de Silva, headed the Press Commission. The other two Commissioners were

1) Mr. S. W. Walpita (lawyer), and

2) Mr. W.E. Abeyakoon (a District Judge). Mr Abeyakoon was appointed to fill the vacancy created bv the resignation of Mrs. Thejawathie Gunawardhana on November 19,1963.

The public sittings of the Commission commenced on December 5, 1963 and were continued till June 30, 1964. In all, sittings were held on 107 days. 15 Associations and 59 individuals gave evidence, while 75 Memoranda were received from the Public. The Commission terminated its public sittings on June 30, 1964. An Interim Report was released on July 28, 1964 and a Final Report on September 28, 1964.

Conduct of the Press

The Press Commission observed that the Press of this country, almost as a whole, had not conformed to the general principles of journalism followed in democratic countries. The witnesses had charged the Press with the publication of news, which was slanted, distorted or fabricated in order to serve the masters who owned these newspapers. Two additional charges were also levelled against the Press, which the Commission considered as ‘ somewhat unusual and can seldom be framed against the Press in other democratic countries. These two charges are that our newspapers have conducted themselves in a manner hostile to the interests of the country and Buddhism, the religion professed by the vast majority of the permanent population. ‘ (Press Commission Report (hereinafter cited as PCR) para 18, page 12).

Patriotism in newspapers

If these English language newspapers were sufficiently patriotic they could have made a very useful contribution to bringing about unity among the various communities after the country achieved its independence. They should have advised the minority groups to adapt themselves to the changing circumstances and exhorted the majority to be generous towards the former. They failed to do that. What they consistently did was to poison the minds of the minority groups and encourage them to fight to retain the unjust privileges they had received during the era of foreign domination. ” (PCR para 112, page 56)

” The journalists manning the Sinhala language newspapers knew fully well that this policy was wrong and unpatriotic but they themselves were compelled to follow, though unwittingly, the same policy due to pressure exerted on them by the management” (PCR para 113, page 56)

Relative influence of the Newspapers

The Report states that most of the politically and economically influential people in this country rely primarily on English language newspapers, and only seldom read what appear in the Sinhala language newspapers. (PCR para 45, page 25)

Communalism in the Press

On the issue of communalism in the Press, the Report quotes Dr. K.N. Jayatillake, Professor of Philosophy, University of Ceylon, as follows:

” With regard to the English reading public, the impression has been created that the communal and religious minorities must get together and oppose the Sinhalese Buddhist majority if they are to get any rights at all. The point of view is put forward that the Sinhalese Buddhist majority is intolerant and is trying to deprive the minorities of their rights. As a matter of fact it is not so.'” (PCR para 46, pages 25 -26)

 Conduct of the Tamil Press

In respect to the conduct of the Tamil Press i.e. the Virakesari, the Report quotes V.A. Kandiah and G. Kumaralingam, members of the Ceylon Journalists Association and sub -editors of the ‘ Tholaly ‘ as saying ‘ It is carrying on a continuous communal propaganda in issue after ‘issue. Virakesari is owned and run by Indian nationals, and as such their purpose is to spread the idea of Indian domination of this country and condition the people ‘ Referring to the ‘ Thinakaran ‘ of the Lake House group and the Virakesari, Mr. Kumaralingam was quoted as saying ‘ Briefly these papers are infecting the Tamil population with communalism, thus disrupting the unity of the Sinhalese and Tamil people. These papers should be properly controlled to enable us to play up national unity.’ (PRC para 47, page 26)

Spreading of false communal propaganda

The Report specifically refers to the ‘ Ceylon Daily Mirror ‘, ‘ Ceylon Observer ‘ and the Times of Ceylon ‘ as newspapers largely responsible for spreading the communal propaganda line that the minorities in this country were denied their due rights, and that they were treated as second class citizens. These newspapers promoted the view that the position of the minority groups was analogous to that which existed in South Africa Angola and Rhodesia, where the indigenous black Africans were subject to blatant racial discrimination. The Press Commission observes in relation to this media campaign of disinformation that’ there is no English language newspaper published here which points out the falsity of this mischievous propaganda. Added to this, there is a vicious whispering campaign carried on, at a personal level, in England and the USA against the Sinhala people.’ (PRC para 48, page 26)

Sir Nicholas Attygalle, the Vice – Chancellor of the University of Ceylon in his evidence said that he had come across mischievous propaganda against the Sinhalese on his visits to England and USA, and he believed that the source of this false news was our own leading newspapers. (PRC para 49, page 27)

The Press Commission observed that ‘ As a result of this campaign one naturally finds a hostile (foreign) press against this country, and an atmosphere of prejudice is created thereby against Ceylon. Indeed, it is unfortunate that there is no organisation available at the moment to present an accurate and impartial picture of what is actually happening here.”  (PRC para 49, page 27).

Anti – national Activities

Though the local newspapers had been consistently engaged in grandiloquent talk of the freedom of the press, and of their vigilance in protecting the human rights of the citizen the Press Commission Report observes that this vigilance was not sufficiently maintained to prevent an attempt to bring down the Government by force in the early part of 1962.

The Report states that certain witnesses had alleged that the Times of Ceylon was aware that a coup detat was going to be attempted in the early part of 1962. While conceding that there was not sufficient evidence to accept that view with certainty, the Report points out that the editorial comments of the Times of Ceylon during the two months preceding January 27, 1962, were calculated to generate confusion in the minds of its readers and provoke hostility against the lawfully constituted Government. The Report adds that the role the Times of Ceylon adopted ‘ was not however to warn the Government and the people, but on the other hand to prepare the people psychologically to accept the new Government when established. ‘ (PRC para 51, page 27).

Publication of World Buddhist News

The ‘ Yomiuri Shimbun ‘ the largest and the most powerful newspaper in Japan has a total circulation of over 5 million. Out of its 16 pages, 3 pages are exclusively devoted daily to the publication of World Buddhist News. The Press Commission Report adds that ” according to the evidence placed before them it is very difficult to obtain coverage in our newspapers for important Buddhist functions and events. ” ( PCR para 213 page 91).

Dr. K.N. Jayatilleke in his evidence said that foreign news which was of real interest to the Buddhists was never given the publicity it deserved.  He recalled one incident where on proceeding to Lake House to hand over an article, he had been shown some Reuter’s news telegrams. He had then noticed a large number of items of news of interest to Buddhists but that these were never published. He said that the explanation may lie in the fact that the Editor who was not a Buddhist, was not interested in publishing something which would have been of interest to the majority of the people of this country. (PCR para 159, page 71)

Sri Lanka’s English media has no interest in looking at issues threatening Buddhist interests whether in Sri Lanka or overseas from a Buddhist perspective. Christian proselytising in India, Nepal, Mongolia and other Asian countries are almost never reported in Sri Lanka’s mainstream English press. 

South Korea in 1952 had a 80% Buddhist majority. Almost 60 years later the population of the Buddhists had plummeted to 22%. Now Buddhism in South Korea is referred to as the second largest religion, by international news agencies.

More than 46 years after the Press Commission had noted the scant attention the mainstream English newspapers gave to global Buddhist events, the situation remains largely the same.

The Press Commission Report (1964) provides a sense of ‘ deja vu ‘ to those who have lived long enough to witness a brief period of Buddhist renaissance nearly half a century ago, and are now seeing the state of play in the Mass Media in this opening decade of the 21st Century. To the others, particularly those born in the post-1956 period and who are nevertheless concerned about the accuracy and adequacy of the coverage given to Buddhism and the Buddhist viewpoint in the newspapers, the Report provides much food for thought.

The Report could not be implemented as the Government that appointed the Press Commission was shortly after the release of the Report defeated at the General Elections held in 1965. The scope of the investigation and its findings, nevertheless stand out as a unique undertaking in the history of this country, aimed at rectifying serious problems in the ownership, management and editorial direction of leading newspaper groups.

Proposal

The establishment of a Mass Media Commission to inquire into the state of the Mass Media in Sri Lanka in all their ramifications and provide recommendations for reform of the press and other mass media agencies is a public necessity.

Such a Commission must be empowered to monitor and review editorials, articles in newspapers and other publications, radio broadcasts and television programmes of media institutions that aim to undermine and denigrate Buddhism and its pre-eminent status as the leading moral and spiritual force in this country.

It must be authorized to investigate whether there is a campaign by groups hostile to the national interest and the unity of the country, that use the various segments of the mass media, with the connivance of media personnel, both in the State and privately owned newspaper groups to undermine the victory achieved over terrorism in 2009, weaken the resolve to express public gratitude to soldiers who made enormous sacrifices to restore peace, and create a climate of instability leading to possible foreign intervention and the eventual break “”…”up of Sri Lanka.

The re “”…” organization of the Press and the wider Mass Media is an essential pre-requisite to the resolution of the national problem.

One Response to “Re-visiting the Press Commission Report (1964)”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Very interesting.

    Government’s attempts to implement the report was partly responsible for the collapse of the government in 1965.

    It is time to have a re look at this valuable report and act appropriately.

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