The Left and Mass Media in the 20th Century – Ajith Samaranayake

Henry Peiris with Sama Samaja leaders

Henry Peiris with Sama Samaja leaders

“Today, moreover when the newspapers have become more subtle and trivial in their handling of politics (throwing open their columns to guest writers of the extra-parliamentary Left such as Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne) while peddling political gossip rather than issues; and television talk-shows figure all kinds of political opinion straddling the entire spectrum of ideas (if only to pit one against another and convert politics into theatre), the Left seems to have done precious little thinking on how they are to reach a mass audience in this age of the television screen, the microchip and the internet, an audience moreover which has been drugged and made somnolent by the opiate of popular culture manipulated by the forces of western cultural imperialism preaching the religion of a ‘Global Village.’ “

The term ‘media is the vogue word and parrot-cry of an essentially modernist culture. When the Left movement originated, with the founding of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) in 1935, the term was hardly in use.
However, from its inception the Left (the LSSP and the Communist Party—CP), have used newspapers and even more importantly leaflets, pamphlets, booklets and related literature, as important tools and instruments of its contemporaneous struggle against imperialism and capitalism in Ceylon. They have also been the weapons of intra-party fighting such as during the period of the split between the LSSP and the Bolshevik-Leninist Party of India (BLPI).

Newspapers in the 1930s

Therefore I propose to substitute the term ‘newspapers’ for ‘media’ at least from the greater part of the paper; and in this sense, by 1935, two strands were evident in the newspapers of the day.
The first was the big newspaper houses owned by capitalist interests; and the second, a plethora of small newspapers, magazines and other such periodicals in Sinhala which were in large part brought out by individuals who were also interestingly enough mostly owners of small printing presses.
The big newspapers were owned by two companies: the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., better known as ‘Lake House’ (because of its location by the Beira Lake and pejoratively dubbed ‘Beira Gedera’ by the Left); and the Times of Ceylon Ltd.

‘Lake House’ was founded and owned by D. R. Wijewardene, a Cambridge graduate and a member of the comprador bourgeoisie who was percipient enough to see the need for a newspaper both as a successful business enterprise as well as a platform for the nominal campaign for self-rule then carried on by the Ceylon National Congress: an agglomeration of compradors and professionals whose main mode of agitation was to politely petition the Colonial Office in Whitehall.

With ruthless efficiency, Wijewardene bought up several of the small struggling newspapers of the day and swallowed them up to build his ‘Lake House’ empire which in time had three morning newspapers: the Ceylon Daily News (English), Dinamina (Sinhala), Thinakaran (Tamil); the Observer as an evening English newspaper, and its Sinhala counterpart Janatha; and three Sinhala, English and Tamil newspapers on Sundays – the Sinhala Silumina newspaper, at one time boasting that it had the largest circulation of any newspaper in this part of Asia.

The Times was owned by a private company in which English planting interests predominated, and was mostly perceived as the mouth-piece of planting interests, which made it doubly easy for the Wijewardene press to assume a veneer of nationalism and cast its net wider than the parochial Times.

The second strand was the more numerous. These newspapers and magazines covered a wide range; some of them were published for years, others were erratic, while yet others went into early oblivion.

In character, they represented an extreme form of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which was vocal in its demand for self-government and for the overthrow of the colonial yoke, although their rhetoric was never of a radical nature.
They were essentially of a nationalist or populist character and were produced by and addressed to the fast emerging Sinhala middle and lower middle class of Colombo and the major provincial towns consisting of middle-grade and small-time merchants, Sinhala school teachers (called vernacular teachers by the Colonial government), ayurvedic practitioners, the Buddhist clergy, and the more literate artisans.

The more prominent of these news-papers were the Sinhala Jathiya [‘Sinhala Race’], ‘Sinhala Bauddhaya [‘Sinhala Buddhist’] and Sarasavi Sandaresa. These were edited by persons who were also scholars or writers in their own right such as Pandit Dharmaratne, Hemapala Munidasa (considered one of the most trenchant journalists of the time), and Piyadasa Sirisena who became better known as perhaps the most successful, though moralising, novelist of his day.
Most of these newspapers and their editors took themselves extremely seriously as partisans of the country’s campaign for independence from colonial rule and therefore their editorials and feature articles (there was hardly any news in the sense accepted today) were didactic in their intent. However, to the extent that their main credo was Sinhala nationalism there was a limited progressive intent and nature to their enterprise, as against the timid campaign led by the English-educated and Anglicised elite at the head of the Ceylon National Congress.
These editors were greatly influenced by the preaching of Anagarika Dharmapala, the pioneer of the Buddhist renaissance at the turn of the last century and inspired by the Panadura debate of August 1873 in which a charismatic bhikkhu, Ven. Mohottiwatte Gunananda, engaged in verbal combat with, and supposedly routed, a set of the Christian clergy.

Like all Left parties anywhere, the LSSP saw the need for a newspaper to propagate its views and launched the Sinhala-language Samasamajaya [‘Equal Society’], whose first Editor was Henry Peiris who had a good and vigorous command of Sinhala. It was more a newspaper of opinion which cogently put across the LSSP line to its readers.
Naturally, the butt of its attack was the Colonial government and its coercive arm the Police; and one of its favourite hate figures was the Inspector General of Police, Herbert Dowbiggin, who was promptly nicknamed and ridiculed as ‘nondi andi’ supposedly on account of a slight limp that he had. Other major figures of attack were luminaries of the State Council’s Committee of Ministers such as Sir D. B. Jayatilaka and D. S. Senanayake who were seen as shamelessly collaborating with the British administration without mobilising the masses for struggle.
When a fraction of the LSSP was expelled from the party as Stalinists, this group first formed the United Socialist Party which was converted to the Ceylon Communist Party which was identified with Soviet Russia and the politics of the Third International or Comintern. Their main organ (in Sinhala) was Janashakthi [‘People’s Power’] which was edited by Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe the only member of the First State Council of 1931 with professed socialist views. In fact he, and the newspaper’s publisher D. P. Yasodis, were sentenced to prison for printing seditious articles; although during the Second World War the Communist Party supported the Allied war effort after Soviet Russia broke with Hitler.

Needless to say these newspapers with small circulations and limited facilities were no match for the huge propaganda machines which were the Wijewardene press and the Times. The latter had two advantages: the first, was that they were capitalist enterprises which could command capital, technological resources, and staff, which no other newspaper of the day could dream of. The second, was that they were able to cleverly parade in the guise of liberal newspapers separating news from opinion whereas their main motif was the defence of the status quo with some kind of muted nationalism emanating from the ‘Lake House’ press.

But when it came to the Left, both newspaper groups were in unison that these “upstart Leftists”, as these bourgeois gentlemen publishers perceived them, had to be relentlessly attacked and crushed if the capitalist order were to be defended. So the Left was always pictured as irresponsible rabble-rousers.

One of the favourite fictions peddled by these newspapers and other right-wing propagandists was that the Left was composed of amoral and irreligious persons; who if they captured power would raze temples and churches to the ground.

Great play was made of the twisted statement attributed to Dr. N. M. Perera that the Ruwanwelisaya – the sacred dagoba at Anuradhapura built by the ‘Great Sinhala’ King Dutugemunu who had vanquished the ‘Tamil’ King Elara in battle and had brought ancient Lanka under a single flag – was a pile of bricks (‘gadol godak’) that could be utilised for better purposes.

In fact, during the first general election to Parliament in 1947, the favourite poster of the UNP was one of temples and churches ablaze in fires supposedly set off by the wicked Leftists. A single phrase from Marx, namely ‘religion is the opium of the people’, was used to good effect to dupe a largely semi-literate electorate; although anybody reading the whole passage will be struck by the perceptive, even lyrical, attitude Marx adopts towards religion in a class society.

The Leftists were not the only butt of attack of the ‘Lake House’ press. One of their earliest targets was the Anagarika Dharmapala himself. Dharmapala came from a Buddhist Govigama family, the Hewavitharanas, who were engaged in the furniture trade. Perhaps the Wijewardenes and their political mentor D. S. Senanayake, both of whom came from the land-owning class of the Low Country, saw the Hewavitharanas as parvenu traders; while the virulent anti-colonial campaign waged by the Anagarika (his activities were closely monitored by the colonial intelligence service) was unsettling of the status quo to which the comprador class was accustomed.

For both these reasons the Anagarika was attacked so cruelly that he left Ceylon and settled down in Bodhgaya in India, stating that he never wished to be born in Ceylon in any future birth. From this it should be evident that the Senanayake-Wijewardene caucus was ready to spare no pains to hound out from the national landscape any charismatic figure who was prepared to challenge their class interests, whatever patriotic posture they might assume in public to hoodwink the masses.

The other favourite target of the bourgeois press was, of course, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike after his defection from the UNP and the establishment of his own party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.

Even before that the Wijewardenes may have been suspicious of him on account of his nationalistic posturing through the Sinhala Maha Sabha, and what they might have perceived as his gestures towards populism in becoming a Buddhist and dressed in ‘cloth and banian’ after an Oxford education; but these reached a climax after what they saw as his ultimate act of betrayal in deserting the UNP.

In spite of these relentless attacks, which were intensified after he became Prime Minister in 1956, Bandaranaike rejected any call to nationalise the press in his famous after-dinner speech delivered at a banquet hosted by the Press Association shortly before his assassination.

The same campaign continued during the government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike which came into power in July 1960 but Mrs. Bandaranaike who was both a novice to politics as well as hailing from a Kandyan feudal background reacted more sharply to this onslaught.

She appointed a Press Commission to go into all aspects of the newspaper industry headed by K. D. de Silva. This Commission held public sittings and heard evidence from a plethora of organisations as well as individual witnesses and produced a document which was essentially an excoriation of the mainstream bourgeois press of the time.
On the basis of this report, the government drafted a Newspaper Corporation Bill designed to basically alter the ownership patterns of the privately-owned newspapers and bring them more in alignment with national aspirations.
By this time the bourgeois press had been joined by a third newspaper group, the Independent Newspapers Ltd., also known as the ‘Sun Group’ on account of the ‘Sun’ newspaper being its English-language flagship publication. It also published the Dawasa in Sinhala and Dinapathi in Tamil daily; and also three Sunday newspapers in the three languages; and two evening newspapers in Sinhala and English. It was owned by the Gunasena family who had already made a name as book publishers.

Though the Gunasenas were the owners, the editorial direction of the paper was in the hands of D. B. Dhanapala. He was a veteran editor who had persuaded the Gunasenas to venture into this new branch of business, after a difference of opinion with the Times Group whose Sinhala newspaper Lankadeepa he had launched and edited. (Incidentally the Lankadeepa though coming out of the Times stable took a Sinhala nationalist and somewhat progressive political line in the 1950’s, either out of genuine identification with nationalist aspirations, or for crafty commercial purposes, or perhaps a mix of both.

When the Newspaper Corporation Bill came along it was attacked in unison by this unholy press trinity of comprador gentlemen and arriviste mudalalis. By this time the anti-press monopoly campaign had also gathered some momentum. The SLFP and the Left attacked the press monopoly from a political direction.

Meanwhile the vocal Sinhala Buddhist lobby which was then principally led by the Bauddha Jathika Balavegaya [Buddhist National Force] – whose leader was L. H. Mettananda, a former Principal of Ananda College, and receiving the backing of such powerful public officials of the time such as N. Q. Dias, the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs whose Minister was the Prime Minister herself, and the Secretary to the Treasury Jinadasa Samarakkody, effectively the head bureaucrat of the public service – attacked the monopoly press for allegedly promoting what was dubbed ‘Catholic Action’, a supposed campaign by the Catholics to vastly extend their influence in Sri Lanka.

The campaign was so fierce, intense and even vulgar at times, that two groups of more enlightened journalists resigned from the ‘Lake House’ and ‘Sun’ Groups on account of it. The most prominent of the ‘Lake House’ journalists was Regi Siriwardena, then an Assistant Editor of the Daily News and perhaps Sri Lanka’s best English language arts critic apart from being a perceptive political writer. Those who left the ‘Sun’ group were all journalists of the Dawasa (among them Sirilal Kodikara, Jackson Senaratne, Bennet Rupasinghe and Mahinda Abeysundara among others), many of whom later joined the daily newspapers launched at that time by the SLFP, LSSP, and the CP, to counter the bourgeois press empire.

This campaign by the bourgeois press was so successful that the government of Mrs. Bandaranaike (which by this time had been joined by the LSSP) was defeated in the debate on the Throne Speech in December 1964, which included provisions to curb the monopoly of the press. It is well known that the three bourgeois newspaper groups threw their entire might behind the UNP in the effort to fight the SLFP-LSSP Coalition government, orchestrating island-wide public meetings in protest, throwing money liberally round and even allegedly buying up some SLFP MPs who crossed over at the last moment thus bringing down the Government and paving the way for return of the UNP at the general election of March 1965.

It was only in 1973 that the SLFP, LSSP and the CP now back in power as the United Front, was able to at least conquer in part the newspaper empire which had hounded it for so long when the ‘Lake House Group’ was “broad-based” under a Law of Parliament.

Under this Law the company was vested in the Public Trustee with the former owners permitted to hold a miniscule part of the shares. The rest of the shares were to be sold among trade unions, cooperative societies, civic organisations and other such bodies able to buy such shares so that the base of ownership would be broadened. However, this has remained only a promise on paper and a chimera since under not merely that government, but also the three successive UNP governments and the SLFP-led governments thereafter, it has remained tightly under the control of the government-of-the-day.

The other mass medium available during the entirety of the period discussed above was of course radio, until the advent of television in the early 1980’s. The radio was a Government Department until it was made a public corporation in 1968. Likewise state television too was established as a public corporation. Thus both state radio and television are governed by parliamentary laws which inhibit if not prohibit their use as propaganda tools. But governments in power of all complexions have not hesitated to breach these provisions recklessly.

The plethora of private radio and television channels which have sprouted recently are operated according to the laws of the marketplace and cannot be expected to show any fondness for explicitly Marxist or Left positions.
The foregoing potted history of the newspapers and the Left would have conclusively demonstrated that the established bourgeois press has been uniformly hostile to the Left parties and even to the SLFP which they identified as a left-of-centre party which has often been in alliance with the Left. They have also opposed the trade union movement (more often than not linked to the Left as well).

Their only favoured party has been the UNP, the party of the big bourgeoisie, which has been historically the local agent of imperialism. This they have done almost as a reflex action both because they themselves are capitalist property owners and because the Left stands for disturbing and upsetting the status quo and the Establishment.
The Left for its part has had no illusions about the bourgeois press. Going on the Marxist dictum that the “ruling ideas of society are the ideas of the ruling class” the early Left identified the press, educational institutions, and organised religion, as instruments of the bourgeoisie in its fight against the Left. Of these the press has been predominant always. However, the Left has never been able to match the propaganda barrage unleashed by the bourgeois press, particularly at election times.

Even the Aththa, perhaps the most popular and effective mass newspaper of the Left – sponsored by the Communist Party of Sri Lanka and edited brilliantly by the late B. A. Siriwardena – could never effectively counter this bourgeois blitzkrieg (lacking as it did resources and personnel), although its scintillating journalism and the scorn it poured regularly on the UNP will be long remembered in Left circles.

Why wasn’t the Left able to establish an effective Left newspaper, let alone a tradition of Left or radical journalism, particularly in a context where the bourgeois press was uniformly hostile to it and there was no liberal newspaper even on the lines of The Guardian in Britain, for example?

The only possible explanation is that knowing the hostility of the newspaper owners and the resources at their command the Left consciously substituted Parliament and mass agitation and education through public rallies for the press, as propaganda tools in their fight against their enemies. Of course, SLFP and Coalition governments have come into power in 1956 and 1970 most significantly, in the teeth of hostility by the press empire. But these have been pivotal turning points in the history of the country when the UNP Government had become thoroughly discredited in the eyes of the electorate and all the ‘King’s Horses and all the King’s Men’ could not prevent an Opposition victory. In similar vein was the People’s Alliance victory of August 1994.

Today, moreover when the newspapers have become more subtle and trivial in their handling of politics (throwing open their columns to guest writers of the extra-parliamentary Left such as Dr. Vickramabahu Karunaratne) while peddling political gossip rather than issues; and television talk-shows figure all kinds of political opinion straddling the entire spectrum of ideas (if only to pit one against another and convert politics into theatre), the Left seems to have done precious little thinking on how they are to reach a mass audience in this age of the television screen, the microchip and the internet, an audience moreover which has been drugged and made somnolent by the opiate of popular culture manipulated by the forces of western cultural imperialism preaching the religion of a ‘Global Village.’


Kithsiri Nimal Shantha, Sinhala Puvathpath Theeru Lipiya Vikashanaya saha Sanvedanaya, S. Godage and Brothers, Colombo 1993.

T. B. Ilangaratne, Tilaka Saha Tilakaa, Saman Press, Maharagama, 1963.

Regi Siriwardena, Working Underground – The LSSP in Wartime: A Memoir of Happenings and Personalities, International Centre for Ethnic Studies, Colombo 1999.

1 Author’s Note: When I delivered this talk I said that it was an impressionistic exercise since I was not reading from a prepared text. In spite of the fact that considerable material has been added to this essay subsequently it still retains its original form.
2 The passage in full from A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1843) is as follows: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

Courtesy, Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue (c)

This article originally appeared in Pathways of the Left in Sri Lanka, 2014, edited by Maarshall Fernando and B. Skanthakuamr, Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue. pp.121-134.

The writer – Ajith Samaranayake, son of lawyer N.A. Samaranayake and Mrs Malini Samaranayake was born in Kandy .He was a Trinitian. Early in his youth he leaned towards the left movement, and was a left liberal of the humanist mould. Ajith began his career as a journalist way back in 1975 at Lake House and later joined The Island at its inception.He was a professional journalist with a great commitment, whose interests were ranged from the arts, drama, cinema, literature, personalities and contemporary events to political commentary. He held the post of chief editor in number of newspapers including The Island and The Sunday Observer and was also a long time activist for media freedom in Sri Lanka. Ajith died aged 51 on Wednesday Nov 22, 2006 after a brief illness.

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