2021 May 3
The press is one of the most vital elements of every country, acting as a watchdog and also regarded as the “4th estate”. The history of the press in Sri Lanka dates back centuries, suggesting how the circulation of news and information was a fundamental aspect that weaved society together. In line with World Press Freedom Day, here we look at some of the pivotal moments in Sri Lanka’s history that moulded how we consume and disseminate news today.
1737 – The Dutch set up the first printing press on the island.
1802 – Marks the beginning of the press in Sri Lanka with the Government Gazette. Although not an official newspaper, it was used to announce leaves, postings, retirements and administrative decisions under the purview of the British government.
April 1829 – The Colebrooke-Cameron commission appointed by the then British government, recommended the necessity of starting newspapers.
January 1st 1832 – The Colombo Journal was published under the auspices of the colonial government.
December 31st 1833 – The publication was discontinued as the Colombo Journal severely criticised the British government at the time. The reason given for its closure was that the newspaper field should be left to private enterprises instead.
4th February 1834 – With a clear demand for a free newspaper, a group of merchants – G. Ackland and E.J. Darley, joined together to commence The Observer and The Commercial Advertiser. The Observer continues to run even today. Under the editorship of Christopher Elliot, The Observer became a paper that was highly critical of the government and played a vital role in driving Ceylonese public opinion against the colonial government.
1841 – The Morning Star, a bi-weekly journal began publishing in both English and Tamil mediums.
June 1860 – The first-ever Sinhala weekly newspaper called Lankaloka in Galle was published, leading to the birth of the “language” press.
1948 – By the time Sri Lanka gained independence from the British, the press was essentially a duopoly, operating under the ANCL, also known as the “Lake House”, and the Times group.
1979 – Wijeya Newspapers Limited (WNL), was established.
1981 – Upali Newspapers Limited (UNL) was founded. By this point, the ANCL, WNL and UNL were the three most powerful groups under which newspapers were published in Sri Lanka.
12th November 1994 – The government of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga came into power on the basis of an election manifesto that promised the people fundamental freedoms, including freedom of the press. This came in the midst of the ongoing civil conflict between the government and the LTTE, where restrictions on the press had already been imposed by the previous government.
June 5th 1998 – Censorship was re-imposed and journalists were also forbidden from entering conflict zones.
2002 – At this stage of the conflict, information flow was controlled by quietly banning books, videos and magazines. Censorship was lifted only after the end of the war in 2009.
2011 – The introduction of e-papers or online newspapers such as Lakadeepa, Sunday Lankadeepa, Sunday Times and many more.
August 2018 – The Morning newspaper was introduced by Liberty Publishers. In March 2021 they introduced The Morning audio newspaper.
Sri Lanka’s journey illuminates an ever-changing narrative through the decades, from press freedom to the ruthless imposition of censorship during harrowing times. What started off as a way of circulating information morphed into the need and urgency to bring truth to the masses.
The turn of the 21st century marked global and local media shifts from pulp to digital. These very changes have reached our doorstep, most notably through the introduction of the e-paper, audio newspapers, online news sites, and even through growing social-media platforms such as Twitter. In the past, the press functioned on the basis of the ‘biggest scoop’ and ‘the next headlining story’ as a way to attract more readers and audiences. As much as this phenomenon exists amongst the press today, news coverage has changed with the rise of alternative forms of consumption.
When anticipating what the future of the Sri Lankan press might be, the audience and the reader hold the power. Although newspapers are still widely read across the island, it is hard to determine how much longer the printed press will last. Instead, Sri Lanka has been part and parcel in embracing this digital news culture and will continue to do so as time goes on.