C.E.L. Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka
By Global Journalist Staff Posted Jul 1 2000
Cyril Esmond Lucien (C.E.L.) Wickremesinghe became the editorial managing director of the largest and most influential newspaper group in Sri Lanka, the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon, in 1950, at the age of 30. Between August 1960, when the government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike announced the takeover of the newspaper group, and December 1964, when the government was defeated on the single issue of press nationalization, Wickremesinghe was the catalyst and leader in a bold effort to defend press freedom against great odds, laying the foundation for robust, privately owned media in Sri Lanka.
Wickremesinghe was born May 29, 1920, and received training as an attorney before he became the managing director of editorial operations at Lake House, the home of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon. His first challenge as director was to enhance the professional structure of the newspaper group that was founded by his visionary father-in-law, D.R. Wijewardene, during the fight for freedom from colonial rule.
Wickremesinghe set about reorganizing the company, which comprised five dailies and three Sunday newspapers in English, Sinhalese and Tamil. He recruited talented journalists, nurtured journalistic excellence, and developed strong regional and international links.
Before long, however, he had to overcome a different challenge. On Aug. 12, 1960, the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike announced its intention to introduce legislation “to take over the newspapers controlled by the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon,” which had opposed her Sri Lanka Freedom Party and its pro-Sinhalese socialist policies in the general elections. From that moment on, Wickremesinghe stood at the forefront of the battle for freedom of the press in his country.
Threats to press freedom took many forms. A state-controlled Commission of Inquiry formally proposed press controls. Legislation was drafted for the nationalization of the press. After the failure of four draft bills aimed at a takeover of the press, the government was left with a three-man press commission opposed by all seven opposition parties. Another press bill in 1964 had to be withdrawn at the last moment, but not before it had become a major political issue throughout the country.
Heavy-handed efforts, including government bombs thrown at his residence, were meant to intimidate Wickremesinghe into submission, but he remained undaunted. Supported by his fellow directors at Lake House, he led an effective global campaign in support of press freedom in his country. Through direct contacts, he urged local politicians to stand up to attacks on freedom of expression and of the press, and he united rival newspaper groups behind a common cause.
During the 1965 general elections, Wickremesinghe campaigned vigorously for opposition parties committed to press freedom. Bandaranaike’s government was defeated in March 1965 and the press gained a respite from a four and a half year battle.
Bandaranaike, however, returned to power in 1970, and finally nationalized The Lake House group in 1973, only to find that dismissed journalists had formed a trust with Wickremesinghe as chairman, which started publishing three new papers in the three different languages of the country. “They turned out to be a great success, particularly financially,” Wickremesinghe told the 24th General Assembly of the IPI in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1975. “They are run on a very simple formula: publishing all the news the government wants to hide.”
Although long involved in fighting government interference, Wickremesinghe’s natural flair for diplomacy led him to play an important role in negotiating his country’s admission to the United Nations, and he also headed Sri Lanka’s delegation to UNESCO for many years.
As IPI Chairman from 1966 to 1968, his outstanding contributions to press freedom earned him worldwide recognition. Wickremesinghe died of a heart attack on Sept. 29, 1985.