Comparison and contrast of editorial policies of Sunday Island and Sunday Times from 2000-2015 show disagreements on Tamils, India, and federalism Part III
Posted on February 7th, 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)

  1. April 24, 2011
  2. Sunday Island Editorial Title: “Big bucks, politics and rhinoceros hides”

Summary: A critical look at the “lot of cloak and dagger stuff that goes on in the national cricket administration.  Branding Sports Minister Aluthgamage a “chandiya,” the Island lamented the greed and corruption that has engulfed the Board of Control of Cricket (BCCSL): “A deadly cocktail of big bucks and politics together with the rhinoceros-thick hide of many of those who are and have been in charge of national cricket in our country have now combined to send a limping Lankan team on a tour of England next month. After reaching the World Cup finals and coming tantalizingly close to the crown, we are now in the process of shooting ourselves in the foot for reasons of greed on the part of some players, a hopelessly inept cricket administration.”

  1. Sunday Times Editorial Title: “Clinically shred war crimes allegations“

 Comparison and Commentary: This ST editorial blamed the government for its failure to activate the think-tank Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of Foreign Relations and Strategic Studies that would nave enabled it to quickly respond to the voluminous but faulty report of the panel of experts appointed by the UN Secretary General to inquire on the alleged crimes in Sri Lanka. Observing that there is a bigger agenda behind this report, the editorial concluded: “The UN report’s findings must be clinically shredded to pieces. The Government must point out the UN Charter -which proclaims the inherent right granted to a sovereign state to self-defense. But just as much as the panel of so-called experts has mixed its apples and oranges, the Government too cannot keep demanding national unity when its own conduct is under scrutiny at home. It can no longer ignore calls from home, for political accountability and good governance by forever relying on the people’s patriotic fervor to bail it out of difficult situations.” [Again, unlike during the first few years of the 16 year-period of this study, with two long serving journalists as chief editors, the SI and ST editors dwelt on two different issues–the SI lambasting the narrow issue of patronage and corruption in the Sri Lanka cricket establishment, and the ST criticizing the government for not heeding its advice to activate a local think tank to quickly shred the faulty allegations of the IC –a broader issue with an international touch.]

 

  1. October 14, 2012
  2. Sunday Island Editorial Title: “How much will the dons get?”

Summary: Comments on the university dons’ decision to end their strike for higher salaries on the understanding that the government would allocate at least 6 percent of the GDP on education. The editorial asserted that such a huge sum for “education spend,” in the short term, was “outside the realms of possibility.” The Island failed to see any merit in the FUTA demand that the academic salary structure be on par with that of the Central Bank considering the available evidence revealed by National List MP Professor Rajiva Wijesinha on the scant number of hours per week that the dons spend teaching.

  1. Sunday Times Editorial Title: “No harm in judicious clash!”

Comparison and Commentary: This ST editorial argued that an element of antagonism among the three branches of power — the judiciary (JSC), the legislature (Parliament) and the executive (President) was “not a bad thing” to prevent “the rise of authoritarianism and the dismantling of the separation of powers” as attempted by constitutional Amendment 18. Therefore, it hailed the recent Supreme Court ruling that the Divineguma Bill be referred to the provincial councils for approval before re-tabling the legislation in Parliament. Thus, in comparison to the SI, the ST gave high priority to the broader issues of constitutional (including matters pertaining to press freedom and the FOIA) and electoral reform. The SI was more concerned with narrower issues like the dons’ salaries.

 

  1. October 6, 2013
  2. Sunday Island Editorial Title: “The baby and the bathwater”

Summary: The heading of this editorial is a catchphrase used to suggest an avoidable error in which something good is eliminated when trying to get rid of something bad. It focuses on the decision to temporarily close down Dipped Products PLC’s Venigros factory at Weliveriya because the area residents, instigated by the overreaction of the army, believed that the factory’s draw-down of ground water for its operations had made well water in the neighboring areas undrinkable. Taking up cudgels for the factory, the editorial surmised that political imperatives of the impending PC elections might dictate that the factory would not be allowed to resume production in the short term. It contended that although the government has the duty to ensure safe drinking water for the people, it was imprudent to throw out the baby with the bath water.

  1. Sunday Times Editorial Title: “Vital agenda for Indian EAM”

Comparison and Commentary: This was another anti-Indian editorials that the ST  wrote during the official visit of the Indian external affairs minister to Sri Lanka. It alleged that “the Indian Government keeps badgering Sri Lanka about is the implementation of the ‘Made in India’ 13th Amendment to the (Sri Lankan) Constitution, [which] has not only the feigned interest of the minority Tamils in the North and East insofar as the Indians are concerned, but it served  the domestic political compulsions and geo-political interests of India in having a foothold in north Sri Lanka – the closest land mass to its southern flank. Now, with the pro-India Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in office in the North, India’s objectives in triggering that separatist insurrection 30 years ago have been achieved.” It called on the visiting EAM to consider “ whether India’s foreign policy vis–à–vis Sri Lanka will forever be Tamil Nadu-centric and if that be so, isn’t this alienating the rest of India from good neighborly relations with Sri Lanka and losing the Sri Lankan people’s natural affinity and goodwill for his country?”

[These two editorials of the same date confirm the SI editor’s tendency to focus on narrow topics and the ST editor’s continued tendency to examine broader cosmopolitan/international issues like India’s attitude toward Sri Lanka.

 

  1. October 19, 2014
  2. Sunday Island Editorial Title: “The return of the Yal Devi”

Summary: A rambling nostalgic essay on the good old days when the CGR provided a superior service than now with the three iconic trains Yal Devi, Ruhunu Kumari and Udarata Menike that caught the national imagination of the people thanks to dedicated public servants like the legendary engineer B. D. Rampala, who “steered the railway with an iron hand.” Unfortunately, the railway service had become politicized so much so that President Rajapaksa’s “publicists did their best to extract maximum political mileage for their boss” from the resumption of the Yal Devi service destroyed as a result of the long conflict in the Northeast.

  1. Sunday Times Editorial Title: “A return to the bad old days”

Comparison and Commentary: The ST’s anti-Indian and anti-Tamil theme was apparent again in this editorial that criticized the “duplicitous politics of the northern politicians” –the Northern Chief Minister and his councilors — for boycotting the Development Council meeting chaired by President Rajapakse in the wake of the re-opening of the railway line to Kankesanturai, the cost overheads of which were nearly triple the amount what they should have been. It berated the NCP chief minister for having “ the gumption to call upon a foreign country [India] to directly interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.” The editorial went on to say: “Time and again, the Government has been warned that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA)-run Northern PC is going to be a proxy for India — now it is official. The Secretary General of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) went on record very recently pointing out to the hidden face of the TNA. In a letter to the Indian PM he has exposed the dangerous politics they played once, acknowledging the LTTE as the sole representatives of the Tamil people of the north and east. The TNA supports an international probe into the conduct of the Armed Forces that liquidated the LTTE in 2009.” [Although both editorials converged on the resumption of the Yal Devi railway line to Jaffna, the SI editor made use of the event to go on a nostalgic trip to the good old days of the 1960s while the ST editor took another swipe at the duplicitous and anti-national conduct of TNA politicians.]

 

  1. July 5, 2015
  2. Sunday Island Editorial Title: “Mahinda at halfway house?”

Summary: This editorial said that President Sirisena owed an explanation for caving in “under sustained pressure to give the nod to [former President] Rajapaksa’s candidature either on the SLFP or UPFA ticket for the past several days and weeks.” By agreeing to MR being a UPFA candidate, “Sirisena was merely acknowledging the certainly of his candidature though perhaps giving it some kind of official imprimatur.” Although the state media were not dispensing “undiluted government propaganda” as in the days of the Rajapaksa regime, the editorial found it ominous that the previous day’s “Daily News virtually ignored the story of Rajapaksa being a UPFA candidate at the general election.” It stated: “It is also time to get rid of those politicians who have been too long in office by opportunistically changing sides.”

  1. Sunday Times Editorial Title: “President waves white flag and capitulates”

Comparison and Commentary:  This ST editorial, just like the SI editorial, focused on President Sirisena’s failure to deny the SLFP/UPFA nomination to former President Rajapakse for the scheduled August 17 general elections. It surmised: “Party politics overtook national requirements to punish corrupt former Ministers and election promises to clean up Government were as easily forgotten as they had been made. Now, the 180-degree turnaround is full circle with the agreement to give Mr. Rajapaksa nomination despite public pronouncements he would not. Previous arguments to SLFP leaders as to how the SLFP could give nominations to someone who is corrupt, and repeated assurances to his Prime Minister [RW], that Mr. Rajapaksa would not be nominated have all fallen by the way side.” Quoting the adage that “uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” the editorial said the president “must promote himself from a politician to a statesman, if he can.” [Although the focus of both editorials converged on this occasion, the thrust of the ST editor was on the need for constitutional reform to prevent “professional politicians” becoming parliamentarians taking advantage of an anomaly in the PR and preferential voting system, whereas the SI editor explained the capitulation in terms of Sirisena’s failure to quit party politics and become a statesman by holding the general elections soon after the January 8 presidential election.]

Concluding Remarks

I did this comprehensive content analysis of two of Sri Lanka’s independent national newspapers as a token of an expatriate’s gratitude to his original motherland for giving him a free education through the university and for training him as an international journalist. I earned a doctorate in mass communication in 1972 and retired as a professor of communication at an American university, where I taught editorial writing for more than two decades until my retirement in 2007. I hope that my observations in this report will assist contemporary journalists in Sri Lanka to improve their opinion writing skills.

The 46 editorials I selected for this tedious exercise enabled me to generalize for all the Sunday issues of the two newspapers published during the past 16 years because my random procedure gave an equal chance for all to get into the sample. Previous research has shown that very little in accuracy occurs by enlarging the sample size.

The biggest strength of the editorials I read was the exemplary use of English diction interspersed with suitable Sinhala adage, as well as slang Americanisms like hunky dory and hoity-toity, where the cap fitted.

The biggest weakness of the self-same editorials was the general absence of deductively derived conclusions by logically combining the two propositions that Aristotle called the major premise and the minor premise. Had they used the putative syllogisms, they could have focused on supporting the premises instead of rambling on unnecessarily beating around the bush thereby obfuscating the thesis. To facilitate clarity, they could have narrowed down their topics/subjects to logically defensible thesis statements. This rigorous intellectual exercise requires mindful concentration (in the Buddhist tradition) and editorial assistance to do the needed research.

A Sri Lanka editor would also find a thorough understanding of the systems thinking embedded in the (Buddhist) dependent co-arising model immensely helpful to unravel the dynamics of the complex behavior of all living things/beings.

The editors could also avoid many false steps by applying the ethical/moral dimension of the Middle Path –correct speech, action and livelihood—to editorial writing.

It’s easy to write banal editorials by pointing out the current problems the country is facing. But it is difficult to write editorials outlining the suggested solutions to those very problems. writing editorials blaming the politicians for everything gone wrong without suggesting how to solve them is shallow writing. Criticism is easy, but solutions are difficult. Dukkha (unsatisfactoriness) will never disappear however good the solutions might be. A permanent solution is never possible in cyclic existence. Dukkha will continue to ebb and flow from time to time.

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