A patriotic trailblazer | Daily News
D.R. Wijewardene:

A patriotic trailblazer

Lionel Wendt's iconic photograph of D.R. Wijewardene
Lionel Wendt's iconic photograph of D.R. Wijewardene

Only a few people have influenced the course of Sri Lanka’s history in the manner that the late D.R. Wijewardene, founder of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL), has done. As we commemorate the 135th birth anniversary of this noble son of Sri Lanka, it is time to reevaluate his yeoman service to the Nation and to journalism.

Wijewardene, founder of ANCL, will always be known as the doyen of the newspaper industry in Sri Lanka. Born on February 23, 1886, Don Richard Wijewardene was the third son of a family of nine. He received his early education at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia and later entered the Cambridge University in England, where he met some leaders of the Independence Movement of India and also witnessed the power of the media in moulding public opinion.

Impressed by the thoughts, words and deeds of the contemporary Indian visitors to Cambridge that every educated young Indian or Lankan had a historic role to play in the public life of his respective country, Wijewardene was fired with the deep commitment to make the monumental sacrifice he was destined to do on his return home after studies.

Wijewardene was in touch with local events and organised the first deputation to the Secretary of State for the Colonies with H.J.C. Pereira. Among the others of the group was E.W. Perera of the Lion flag fame.

While in England, he had already decided to start a newspaper to fight for the cause of regaining freedom. By the time he arrived, he was fully equipped mentally with the techniques of the trade – how to survive in a competitive world.

A patriot to his fingertips, Wijewardene found the right opening for his anti-colonial mission by purchasing the Sinhala publication Dinamina started by legendary editor H.S. Perera. The Dinamina had run into financial difficulties by 1914. Wijewardene with his brother, D.C. Wijewardene bought the rights of the Dinamina and transformed it into one of the most dynamic dailies in the country. Overnight, the Dinamina rose in popularity reaching remote areas of the country. Once, the Dinamina was printed in the natural colours of the Lion flag of Lanka. D.C. Vijayavardhana in his book Revolt in the Temple states:

“The Dinamina edition created quite a stir in the island. The newspaper office which at that time was located in Norris Road (present Olcott Mawatha, Pettah), Colombo, was stormed by crowds clamouring for copies of the paper which by noon was changing hands at five rupees a copy, and telegrams began to pour in from the outstations requesting more copies, but the edition had been exhausted within a few hours of the issue. Vast crowds gathered on the road opposite the newspaper office and police had to be called in to control them.”

That was the first occasion when our people saw for the first time the Lion flag after it was removed by the British and deposited in the Chelsea hospital in London in 1815.

Wijewardene who learnt that E.W. Perera was responsible for obtaining the Lion flag, ordered a copy drawn exactly in the same colours and dispatched, so that he could reproduce the flag in his paper, the Dinamina. Although the paper had no front page pictures and sensational stories, people everywhere – including the Maha Sangha welcomed it.

In 1918, D.R. bought an English paper, The Ceylonese which had also run into financial distress. He paid Sir Ponnambalam Arunachalam, its founder, Rs.16,000 (then a massive sum) for the paper and the plant and goodwill. Wijewardene revived it and renamed it the Ceylon Daily News.

This newspaper has become such an ingrained part of people’s lives that many old timers and even younger readers still call it the CDN, long after the newspaper shed the ‘Ceylon’ tag. It became one of the most influential voices in the local political scene, shaping opinions and creating debate and it remains so, having already passed its centenary three years ago.

He then purchased the Observer, which was already 90 years old, having begun publishing in 1834. The Daily Observer folded around 10 years ago but the Sunday Observer, is as vibrant as ever and nearing 100 years. The Sinhala weekly Silumina was started in 1930 and the Thinakaran in Tamil followed a couple of years later. He not only established a newspaper business, he also laid the foundation for a newspaper empire where within a short time, newspapers rolled down daily in three languages – English, Sinhala and Tamil. Wijewardene, with his hand-picked team of erudite editors and journalists who shared his noble vision and mission, was in the forefront of the independence struggle through his array of newspapers. In fact, all of Sri Lanka’s leading journalists have begun their careers at Lake House.

Wijewardene revolutionized the newspaper industry and journalism in Sri Lanka with his fearless commitment to exposing the truth through ANCL newspapers. As one of his biographers, the one-time Chief Editor of the Daily News H.A.J. Hulugalle wrote, “Before he was fifty, D.R. Wijewardene had established several flourishing newspapers, built up a great business and influenced the course of the Island’s history. Perseverance, courage and a high sense of public duty were the main elements of his success.”

He was a perfectionist and a trailblazer. He also installed the latest printing technology available at that time and assured a good working environment for his employees.

Wijewardene also understood the power of the visual medium and established a studio called ChitraFoto at Lake House premises where some of Sri Lanka’s foremost photographers honed their skills.

The Lake House edifice, instantly recognized by people across the island, is a proud monument to his lasting legacy. The ANCL was formally established in 1926 and all operations were shifted to the purpose-built ‘Lake House’ building by the banks of the Beira Lake in the heart of Colombo in 1929; hence the name ‘Lake House’. The company, the biggest newspaper publisher in Sri Lanka, still operates from this historic landmark building and the name ‘Lake House’ is now synonymous with ANCL.

Anyone entering the Lake House building would be thoroughly amazed to witness the skillful planning and the deft designing of the entire construction and the interior lay out. The building is constructed in such a way that any type of modern machinery and equipment can be easily installed without major restructuring of the building.

Under any emergency, the entire workforce – can leave their desks and other places of work through the numerous exists. Walking along the corridors one would be overjoyed to appreciate the different kinds of traditional Sinhala motifs adorning the walls.

The grills on the walls in all the floors are adorned with the design of the Dhammcakka - the wheel of righteousness. Bordering the ceiling are paintings drawn on similar pattern to the Kelaniya Vihara paintings illustrating Buddhist themes. Though Wijewardene maintained a low-key profile throughout his life, his name became a household word with the ever growing readership of Lake House papers.

Sir Ivor Jennings, an Irish Christian, the first Vice-Chancellor of the Peradeniya University of Sri Lanka commented that, “As a Buddhist he (Wijewardene) could not advocate or allow his newspapers to advocate methods of violence....”

When Sri Lanka’s first University was to be constructed in a locality that would be pleasant and second to none in Asia, Wijewardene’s advocacy for a residential University located away from all distractions of the capital city of Colombo, finally won the day and the Sri Lanka University came up majestically in the Dumbara Valley in the hill country.

Wijewardene could not live to see the accomplishment of the cause of the University he had championed. The University’s Wijewardene Hall stands as a living monument to his ideals.

Before his demise he donated his books from the Donald Ferguson Collection relating to the Dutch and Portuguese period in Lanka and all the maps he purchased in England and elsewhere. Wijewardene also bequeathed a valuable collection of books and manuscripts purchased from the Library of W.A. de Silva to the University Sangharama in Peradeniya.

The Sangharamaya – a residence for the undergraduate Bhikkus of the University had been on his mind during the latter part of his life. His main objective was providing separate accommodation with all facilities provided to the Bhikkus to enable them “to obtain a University education in order that they may be able to perform a Dharmaduta service both in Sri Lanka and in foreign lands.”

Indeed, men of his calibre are few and far between. While the newspaper industry has changed drastically since the 1950s, the ideals he cherished in the field of journalism still hold true. However, not all journalists and media outlets play by these rules. Today, print media outlets are facing stiff competition from electronic and new media – there was no television here during Wijewardene’s time.

Newspapers have also embraced the Internet even as they compete with dedicated news websites and citizen journalism websites, not to mention Facebook and Twitter.

All the main ANCL newspapers are available on the web and the Daily News and Dinamina are also available as apps on iOS and Android platforms. In fact, ANCL was the first in Sri Lanka and South Asia to have web editions with the launch of Daily News and Observer web editions in 1995 and it has always kept pace with the latest technology. All the media are converging today and one cannot predict what the media landscape would look like even in 2030.

Today, people are bombarded with news 24/7, on their mobiles, on television, radio and the Net. Truth and accuracy often become casualties of this ‘race to be first’ and even national interests are sometimes disregarded. Despite these developments, reports of the death of the (printed) newspaper are greatly exaggerated. Newspapers still have a story to tell – one that is more analytical, more in-depth and assuredly more trustworthy than the sound bites and video clips of the Internet age.

Yes, newspapers will evolve and change over time but all journalists, regardless of their platform, still have to be guided by the principles that Wijewardene believed in – being bold, truthful and objective – in this noble mission.