Comparison and contrast of editorial policies of Sunday Island and Sunday Times from 2000-2015 show disagreements on Tamils, India, and federalism Part I
Posted on February 5th, 2016
By Shelton A. Gunaratne, Ph.D. (Minn.)
Professor of communication emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead and lead author of the book Mindful Journalism and Media Ethics in the Digital Era: A Buddhist Approach (New York & London: Routledge, 2015)
Moorhead, Minn.– Upali Wijewardene, a nephew of the legendary newspaper magnate D. R. Wijewardene, commenced publishing the Sunday Island (SI) newspaper in 1981 as an alternative to the conservative state-owned Sunday Observer and the struggling Independent Newspapers’ Weekend. Thus, the SI did not envisage the Sunday Times (ST), which the Wijeya Group started six years later, as competition. As independent newspapers established by the Wijewardene clan to promote diversity within unity, these two groups currently operate in harmony like cousins.
Sunday Times (circulation 330,000) wears the crown of the current weekly English language newspapers in Sri Lanka. Sunday Island (circulation 103,000) occupies the fourth rank after the Sunday Observer (circulation 175,000) and Rivira Media Corporation’s The Nation (circulation 132,000). The circulation of the Sunday Leader (founded in 1994) is not known.
For heuristic purposes, we wanted to compare and contrast how the two “cousin” Sunday newspapers took their editorial stance on various issues during the period 2000-2015 on the basis of a random sample of 16 Sundays stratified by each year.
Our content analysis of the ST and SI editorials for the 16 years (with one Sunday selected for each year through the Random Calendar Date Generator of Select Random.org) yielded a clearly unexpected result: their polar opposite editorial stands on national issues like India’s intervention in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka, federalism as a solution to devolution of power, and the behavior of the Tamil politicians in the national political scene and the SI’s editorial focus on narrow domestic issues might partly explain the SI’s stagnation .
The comparison/contrast of the SI and ST also indicated that the ST used the majority of its editorials to subjects that related to its few dominant themes whereas the SI took an interest in fewer dominant themes and preferred to dwell on domestic politics and narrower concerns. Whereas the ST was aggressively nationalistic, the SI favored caving into Tamil militants by conceding federalism as an alternative to eelam to restore peace and treading cautiously on political terrain on the basis of what is “practical” rather than what is desirable. The SI advocated a pro-Indian stance to encourage Indian investment in Sri Lanka. It supported federalism as the “practical” solution and extended sympathy for the plight of the Tamil politicians’ plight.
What follows are the chronologically arranged Sundays randomly selected by year constituting our sample, the heading and summary of each SI editorial included in the sample, the heading of each ST editorial published on the same date, and, where necessary, my comparisons and contrasts of the two editorials to show the editorial stands of the two newspapers.
- April 23, 2000
- Sunday Island Editorial Title: [Irretrievable through SI archive or search engine]
Summary: [Unavailable. We made three attempts to contact the Webmaster, the Internet operations manager and the editor of the Sunday Island using the contact addresses published every day in the Island. But none even acknowledged our request for help even when we offered payment. However, the SI editor, who chaired the Editors Guild from 2009 for four years, had valiantly fought for an FOIA in Sri Lanka. Our attempt to enlist the cooperation of the ST editor, who has written more than two editorials advocating the adoption of an FOIA to open up information as in other South Asian countries also failed. I appeal to editors in Sri Lanka to cease playing Jekyll and Hyde and to act on the basis of what they publicly advocate. Newspaper shenanigans are not immune from FOIA legislation.]
- Sunday Times Editorial Title: “All’s well or all’s hell.”
Comparison and Commentary: “All’s well or all’s hell” commented on the precarious impasse at Elephant Pass, blaming the authorities for not revealing the LTTE gains in breaking the blockade to Jaffna peninsula under conditions of press censorship. “All aspects considered, the handling of the war by both political and military establishments have reflected tardiness, corruption and gross inefficiency. The ill effects have been totally advantageous to the LTTE,” it alleged.
- September 9, 2001
- Sunday Island Editorial Title: “The JVP’s ‘look good’ card”
Summary: This editorial credited the JVP for exacting much needed conditions for signing the memorandum of understanding with the PA to help the president [CBK] to hold onto power by maintaining her parliamentary numbers. Conditions included limiting the size of the cabinet to 20, a six-month deadline for legislation to abolish the executive presidency, and appointing five commissions. “Whether CBK has merely used the JVP to buy time till October 10 when a dissolution is possible or whether she will try to make the present arrangement work at least for the year after which she is pledged by the MOU to call fresh elections, the country must wait and see. The people can only hope that the many good intentions incorporated in that document will see actual implementation in substance and spirit,” the editorial said.
- B. Sunday Times Editorial Title: “It’s called survival”
Comparison and Commentary: The ST editorial was on the same topic and on similar lines. It gave “full marks” to the People’s Alliance for surviving September 7 but compared the MOU to “the classic case of the drowning man clutching any straw.”
- February 24, 2002
- Sunday Island Editorial Title: “Peace process. . . tread warily”
Summary: The editorial asked everyone to rejoice the peace agreement signed by the prime minister [RW] with the LTTE with Norwegian mediation. It asserted: “Whatever its drawbacks may be, the Agreement marks a vital step in the peace process. And it is in the national interest for everyone to be supportive of the government whose intentions for peace are genuine [emphasis added].” It criticized the LTTE for not reciprocating the goodwill shown by President Premadasa who granted “almost everything the LTTE asked for,” including the withdrawal of the IPKF. The LTTE used the peace process only to regroup themselves and massacre some 700 policemen whom the government had asked to surrender in 1990 in hopes of keeping the Tigers at the negotiating table. The LTTE had disregarded another peace attempt initiated by the PA government in 1995. Referring to the agreement that Prabhakaran had signed with the prime minister and shown to the president only as a fait accompli had already drawn the rancor of y the JVP, the editorial warned that the government will “be mistaken if it thinks everything is hunky-dory and will go exactly the way it wants. While treading the path to peace, the government must be mindful of the dangers involved.”
- Sunday Times Editorial Title: “The peace frenzy”
Comparison and Commentary: Although the ST editorial of this date also dealt with the same agreement (MoU), it took a pessimistic view of it unlike the SI, which called on everyone to support the agreement in the national interest. Quite different from the SI editor who wanted to accommodate Tamil dissidents despite their untrustworthiness, the ST editor expressed the view that this should not become “the classic case of the shotgun marriage — of signing in haste and repenting at leisure.” The ST editorial concluded: “The Prime Minister and his new government has, like his predecessor did, taken a gigantic gamble – on trust. It’s not just the highways and the coastline that are strewn with mines, the entire peace process is a laden minefield as well.”
- February 23, 2003
- Sunday Island Editorial Title: “One year after the MoU”
Summary: This SI editorial points out “the predictably slow character” of the Norwegian mediated peace process between the LTTE and the government one year after the signing of the MoU. It called the absence of any mechanism to facilitate the representation of Sinhala majority interests in the negotiations “a political blunder.” It observed: “Given its wafer-thin majority in parliament and given the President’s powers of dissolution, the government [of RW] cannot afford to alienate itself from the people in this manner.” Moreover, the government has been giving more than taking in the “give-and-take” transactions in the negotiations. “That the LTTE has violated the MoU on over two thousand occasions, continues to conscript children, smuggle in arms shipments and engage in numerous acts of provocation, has been well documented,” the editorial alleged. Referring to the wisdom of “the adage that politics is the art of the possible, and that this [MoU] is the starting point from which that which is seemingly impossible can be eyed,” the SI editor continued with his optimism toward achieving peace despite the fact that the government was “acting like a blind-folded man, bumping into things, stumbling from one crisis to another, unable to identify the problem because its contours and colors are invisible.”
- Sunday Times Editorial Title: “Press freedom’s success story”
Comparison and commentary: Although this date’s ST editorial was titled to place emphasis on press freedom, it began with a lead drawing attention to the first anniversary of peace since signing the MoU with the LTTE, “one of the world’s most brutally fascist organizations.” However, the ST gave credit to the government for the way it handled the press despite press criticism on the mishandling of the peace process and the economy. It praised the “astute” minister of defense for surviving the no-confidence motion. It noted that the government had not taken any journalist to courts or bashed any journalist’s head. The ST editor parroted the virtues of the Western notion of freedom of the press, thus: “A free press is one of the pillars that sustain advanced liberal democracies anywhere in the world.” Moreover, an enlightened parliament had repealed the draconian and archaic criminal defamation laws that the despotic leaders of the last government had unwisely used.
- March 23, 2004
- Sunday Island Editorial Title: “No blank cheques, please”
Summary: Written on the eve of the April 2 general election, this editorial says the vast majority of people who did not want this election will have to decide between Tweedledum and Tweedledee (UPA or UNF). The prime minister [RW] had only a slender two-seat majority in the parliament. The President [CBK] prepared the ground for dissolution, arming herself with the defence, interior and media ministries. Implementing election promises would require an increase in the money supply thereby engendering inflation in an economy carrying a national debt as big as the GDP. Both contenders have flagrantly abused public property and vitiated financial responsibility. “The state media, of course, is the most visible of the abused resources and its bosses have already thumbed their noses at the Elections Commissioner who tried to talk to them about proper conduct,” it claimed. It called on voters not to arm untrustworthy political leaders with blank cheques that they use with impunity.
- B. Sunday Times Editorial Title: “Amnesty amnesia”
Comparison and Commentary: Although the ST editorial had a different angle, it too was aimed at the April 2 parliamentary election. It accused the president [CBK] of trying to absolve herself from the controversial Tax Amnesty law approved by the UNF government the previous year. Only one MP from the JVP had spoken against the amnesty during the debate. The very nature of the amnesty had provided utmost secrecy to “smugglers, money-launderers and others”– some 64,000 people and businesses — at the expense of honest citizens. Thus, both SI and ST editorials exposed political dishonesty of politicians of all parties just before the people went to the polls.