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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

From the headlines to the firing lines

By Vijitha Yapa
While Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her diamond jubilee this month, the Sunday Times by coincidence is celebrating its silver jubilee. How swiftly time has flown. It seems like only yesterday that a conversation with Ranjith Wijewardene led to an offer to be the founder editor of the Sunday Times in October 1986.

We began recruitment and training of staff in November 1986, Lucien Rajakarunanayake (who is currently at the Presidential Secretariat), Kris Rezel (who is now in Australia), Kalpana Isaac from Raddoluwa (who migrated after marrying a BBC journalist), K. Nadarajah, Chief Sub-Editor, Rajudeen, (layout specialist who had worked with Tehran Times), and Gordon Heyzer were the initial members of the team.

The first anniversary: Editor Yapa gets a piece of cake from Secretary Shalini Senanayake. Standing behind Mr. Yapa at far right is the then News Editor Lalith Alahakoon
Unlike at the Sunday Island where I had only one month before the newspaper went to print, the Sunday Times had a nice gestation period of more than six months. It was also an opportunity to experiment. Having visited the USA Today office in Atlanta in February 1986, we decided to use the same materials of success; the blue masthead, Times New Roman type and format of the paper. This decision proved correct as from day one, the Sunday Times became the second largest circulation Sunday newspaper within only a few weeks of its birth.

Another popular feature was the opinion page where we had about four personalities writing on a subject of current interest and short comments from 10 people who were interviewed on the street. I remember one where a taxi driver was asked what he thought of the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 and his reply was, ‘Eka Kannada?’ (Is it edible?) Mervyn de Silva who wrote his column Men and Matters for the Sunday Times was rightly amused and said in his entire career as a journalist he had never seen such a down-to-earth comment which said everything that has to be said about the agreement.

Before the paper hit the streets, we felt we needed to do something to attract public attention, especially of the Colombo public, as no other newspaper was willing to publish the birth of the Sunday Times on June 7, 1987. It was suggested that perhaps the ladies of the editorial department would like to participate in a publicity stunt. One Saturday, they went to a rugger match at the CR & FC grounds, walked to the front and faced the crowd. Blazed across the front of their T-shirts were the words “we will reveal all…”. The curiosity of the crowd was aroused in more ways than one and at a given signal the ladies turned around, to show off the words at the back of their T-shirts “… in the Sunday Times”. It was a small incident but became the talk of the town.
We will reveal all: The then team Sunday Times promoting the paper at the CR & FC grounds
When the paper came out next week, Rex de Silva, editor of the Weekend, carried a cartoon of me dressed in a skirt wearing a t-shirt saying ‘Yapa reveals all’. He was probably referring to a full-page tabloid picture we had of the popular film actress Srimathi Rasadari dressed in a white saree with a waterfall in the background splashing water on her clothes.

From the beginning we were lucky news wise. The JVP attacked the Kotalawela Defence Academy in Ratmalana and stole some guns providing us with a worthy headline. There were many memorable stories. D.B.S. Jeyaraj’s article on how India had planes based in Bangalore ready to bomb the army, navy and air force headquarters in Colombo if the Sri Lanka president tried to defy Indian planes carrying food packages to be dropped over in Jaffna was a sizzler. He also revealed how Indian High Commissioner J.N. Dixit and his team were burning a large amount of files at the rear of the High Commissioner’s residence worried that if a mob attacked the premises the confidential files could fall into the wrong hands, like Wikileaks. The Indian High Commission, which was quick to react in those days to anything written about India, never issued a denial.

I remember with gratitude many people who rose to prominence because of their work in the Sunday Times. Lasantha Wickremetunga’s wife, Raine, was smuggled to the Sunday Times from Hong Kong when Lasantha said there is a talented journo looking for a job. She was certainly experienced and we hired her, but it was many weeks later we discovered she was Lasantha’s fiancée.

Lasantha blossomed after we gave the ok to write a political column under the pseudonym Suranimala to protect his identity as he was writing on sensitive issues. The handwritten copy was brought to my house at Claessen Place on Saturday morning where my wife Lalana faithfully transferred it on a typewriter to decode words in Lasantha’s illegible handwriting. The identity was a closely guarded secret, with only the publisher and me knowing his identity. But it soon became the most-read political column of any newspaper on a Sunday.

This column was also responsible for my resignation from the Sunday Times, over an incident with President Premadasa. I first got to know Ranasinghe Premadasa in the ’60s when he was the Deputy Minister of Local Government. I was working for the Indian News Weekly Himmat at that time and interviewed him. In the ’70s when he visited India, I accompanied him from Bombay to Pune to the training centre of Initiatives of Change in Panchgani. We had long chats and he even wrote a song Minisa Minisata ErehivaIaney. My attempts to put a tune to it led to a number of rejections until at tea time Parthiban, from Tamil Nadu, asked what we were struggling over. Premadasa, in search of a musical score, then read to him the words of the song. Immediately this young man hummed a tune and Premadasa liked it. The song was written by a Sri Lankan who became a President and the music was provided by a young Tamilian who later rose to be the Manager of a bank in India. The next day, Premadasa heard about the death of Dudley Senanayake and rushed back to Colombo.

We remained good friends until in the Sunday Island under the satirical column Anuradhapura diaries written by U No Hoo he was referred to as. Aalaya while his wife’s name was Himalaya. Things came to a head when an innocent question by a British journalist at a function held at the Oberoi found its way into this column. He asked whether the Prime Minister’s wife’s name was Magul Bera. When asked how he came to that conclusion, he replied that in all the local papers, it was reported that the Prime Minister inaugurated that seminar and opened this building “accompanied by Magul Bera”.

President Premadasa’s ire was raised when Suranimala reported that Sirisena Cooray refused to attend a meeting when President Premadasa asked him to help to work out the details of his new cabinet. Cooray, who knew of Premadasa’s plans to give demoted ministries to Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, had said ‘Anunge Beli Kapanna Mata Udaw Wenna Baa’ (I cannot help cut the throats of others). Cooray then left in a helicopter to Devinuwara to attend a function at the Devinuwara Devalaya organised by Mahinda Wijesekera.

Premadasa had felt we were telling the nation that there was a wedge between Cooray and him. He began to attack publisher Ranjit Wijewardene and me in public starting from the Gangaramaya. I received a message from the publisher, who was in Britain, asking me to stop the column. I felt this was interference in the editorial independence and preferred to resign. I was annoyed because this was the first time in five years that there was interference in my judgement as an editor. I preferred to be remembered as an editor who upheld the best traditions of journalism rather than as an editor who continued in office and drew a salary for the sake of it.

A major scoop for the Sunday Times was the arrival of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka. It was a closely guarded secret but my immediate neighbour, a senior cabinet minister, told me about it 48 hours earlier. We immediately rushed Tyronne Devotta and photographer Pushpakumara Matugama to Jaffna. They were the only journalists from Colombo who were there when the Indians arrived. The report and photos were exclusive and a scoop. They were used even by agencies and newspapers overseas.
Many were the journalists who rose to fame because of their work at the Sunday Times. Among them are Lalith Alahakoon, News Editor, who went on to become the first editor of the Daily Mirror, Nation and now Ceylon Today, Kendall Hopman, Deputy News Editor, who started Sri Lanka’s first dedicated PR agency, Keith Noyahr, who joined us from the YMCA where he was the librarian, and J.S. Tissanayagam who joined us straight from the university and who went through a baptism of fire and is now in the United States.

It is difficult to mention all the names of those who worked during those formative years to make the Sunday Times the most-read newspaper. But the contribution of each one is appreciated, not forgetting those in the advertising, circulation and the printing departments.

The Sunday Times has gone through a baptism of fire on a number of occasions but will be remembered most for the long drawn out criminal defamation case of President Chandrika Kumaratunga against the editor, Sinha Ratnatunga, who succeeded me. The detailed story of that is now chronicled in the book The Other War by Dr Rajiv Weerasundera.

Twenty-five years on, my favourite story is about Qadri Ismail, another colourful character who worked at the Newspaper. While on assignment for the Sunday Times, he was shot at by a sniper in an IPKF aircraft and was lucky to survive. It was days before we got any news of him.

Qadri is now Assistant Professor of English at Minnesota University in the US. He was once involved in an argument about English with his former English Professor Ashley Halpe of the Peradeniya University. The controversy raged in Mervyn de Silva’s Guardian magazine. Finally the learned professor chose to end the interesting exchange with a one-liner. He said, tongue in cheek, “Earlier we had English with a smile; now we have English with an Ismail”. Qadri is now Assistant Professor of English at Minnesota University in the US.

Publisher’s note: I do not have a recollection of asking that the Suranimala column be withdrawn, but Mr. Yapa might well believe that to be a convenient lapse of memory on my part. The column did continue as one of the Sunday Times’ most read commentaries, after Mr. Yapa’s resignation and with that continuance, the experience of many anxious days and restless nights.


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