C.E.L. Wickremesinghe was named editorial director of the most influential newspaper group in Sri Lanka at the age of 30. His efforts to defend press freedom helped to oust Sri Lanka’s prime minister in the 1965 election.

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 Another press bill in 1964 had to be withdrawn at the last moment, but not before it had become a major political issue throughout the country.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. C.E.L. Wickremesinghe died of a heart attack on Sept. 29, 1985.

18th Death Anniversary

Esmond Wickremesinghe : doyen of Sri Lanka's Print Journalism

by Anton Gunasekera - Daily News Mon Sep 29 2003

Today - September 29 - marks the eighteenth death anniversary of the indomitable doyen of pre-and post-Independence Sri Lanka's Print Journalism profession - the ever witty Esmond Wickremesinghe, more familiarly known to us in the 1950s as DEW - who at the dawn of each day, brought with him to Lake House and to a myriad politicians - small drops of refreshing moisture, condensed from the uncertain atmosphere of last night.

The late illustrious and revered Don Richard Wijewardena, farsighted founding father of the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (ANCL) picked DEW as his son-in-law, perhaps, because of his close association with DEW's equally illustrious father, C. L. Wickremesinghe, the brilliant Civil Servant who was appointed by the ruling British colonial powers to perform the twin tasks of Government Agent of the Colombo district and as Lands Commissioner. Steadfast to the core, disciplined and unwavering in decision-making, adolescent DEW certainly came under parental tutelage, while a pupil at the feet of his British teachers.

By 1946, DEW qualified as an Advocate and had a temporary stint at the Hulftsdorp Bar. But as destiny would have it, he was summoned to Lake House in 1947, as second in command to the 'Skipper' of the Ship by the Beira waters. Esmond Wickremesinghe never looked back. From 1947 up until 1965, he was at the helm of affairs at Lake House, guiding and mentoring the editors and editorial staff of five English, Sinhala and Tamil news dailies and weeklies, but with the least interference with the journalistic doctrine; 'News is Sacred - Comment is Free'.

In 1965, the year in which Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was compelled by the voting citizenry to hand over her stewardship to DEW's near and dear friend, Dudley Senanayake, International Media knew that the power behind the change was DEW's hidden hand - mute testimony to the power of the pen. Very shortly afterwards, the International Press Foundation, which comprised worldwide editors and publishers, honoured him with the award of the "First-ever Golden Pen" - the final feather in his cap, after a long and indefatigable 18 years of day/night service to the then vacillating Print journalism - what with the 1960-1964 (February) United Left Front's Competent Authority, functioning as "Word Vetter" lone sentry at the doorway to the Lake House editorials.

During its mid-term in office, when the ULF was about to present in Parliament, the infamous 'Press Bill' that would cripple the editor's Free Comment', DEW flew to Djakarta and had sleepless secret sessions with one of Asia's most renowned journalists - Mochtar Lubis who was then taming Indonesia's Soekarno lion dictator in his own den, through his written word.

DEW returned home with his 'Counter Press Bill Strategy'. Unable to bear the pangs of public opinion, LSSP leader, Dr. N. M. Perera finally announced at a Press Conference (where I was), the "withdrawal of the Press Bill - not because of rubbish newspaper protests, but as a lasting honour, and in remembrance of, American Thomas Jefferson who "first fought for the freedom of the Press-right or wrong".

Later that same year Esmond Wickremesinghe was unanimously elected first President of the Press Foundation of Asia (PFA), with Mochtar Lubis by his side, among a galaxy of Asian editors and publishers. Needless to say, the PFA in 1966, conferred the 'Golden Pen' on Mochtar Lubis for proving to Soekarno that 'the Pen is mightier than the sword'.

If our island nation is today a respected, non-aligned and impartial member of the United Nations, it wasn't political strategists, but Esmond Wickremesinghe who flew 'umpteen' times to world capitals of member countries, no less stormed the East and West Floors of the United Nations corridors as our nation's canvasser, and finally brought home the glad tidings: "This year-October 24-we will be admitted as a member of the United Nations General Assembly". Small wonder then, that he was Special Presidential Adviser from 1980.

In mid-August, 1985, still an active 'behind the scenes' figure, DEW had felt 'a palpitation' in his heart. Every medical specialist-physician or surgeon-knew him... and knew his name by heart.

It was their common consensus that though they had the surgical skills, they were short of surgical wherewithal to perform Bypass Surgery in Colombo. DEW was prescribed medicines which would be just sufficient to keep the heart going, until.....

Accompanied by his eldest son, Shan, (the veteran who brought TV to Sri Lanka), Esmond Wickremesinghe flew to the Houston Heart Clinic in Texas, U.S.A. which had already earned a name for 'life-saving bypass surgery'.

It had been done with meticulous surgical-Shan by his side. But... as Destiny would have it, the amiable strong arm of international media democracy passed away on an autumn Sunday night... with that oft- bewitching smile flowing smile flowing from his lips.

In son Shan's presence, the now dying Esmond Wickremesinghe was asked for his "last wish".

The spontaneous, short and sweet reply, without yet batting an eyelid: "Please cremate me in New World Houston... but let my sons carry back my ashes to my home, sweet home... to my motherland where I belong".

Second son, (Prime Minister) Ranil, then Minister for Employment and Youth Affairs under the J. R. J. Government, was on official Ministerial "duty in London, when elder brother broke the sad news to younger brother; Dad went for good". Still in his early forties, son Ranil phoned his "boss" and his elders and took the next available plane across the Atlantic to attend to the final earthly rituals.

Thus came to an unanticipated end.. the life and times of Esmond Wickremesinghe, the man who made Print Media Journalism what it is today, the Media moghul of yore who had the courage of his convictions and the daredevil to defy British colonial injunctions on 'Keep your Press Mouth Shut'.. but stood his ground to the bitter, end, hand in glove with his father-in-law, until the British vanished from our soil.. after 133 years of ruthless political domination..

According to his last wish, Esmond Wickremesinghe, Man among our men, is in the hands of the Divine? already having attained Nibbana. May his soul rest in peace.

Esmond the tactician

by Lorna Wright - DN Wed Oct 22 2003

The Sunday breakfast table was crowded. All ages. Sinhala, Tamil, Muslims, Burghers. Indigenous food - egg hoppers, string hoppers, pittu, ambulthial, red sambol, pani-pol - kiribath, plantains.

The menu did not incorporate such standbys as breakfast cereal and peanut butter for Jira, Sir John's guest from France, who was holidaying. Nothing said or done at the Kandawala table would leave even a thin residue of cultural, ethnic anxiety in anybody's mind.

Esmond Wickremesinghe

Esmond the newspaper magnate was enjoying himself. A great believer in the virtues of publicity, he neither sought it himself, nor avoided the limelight. It was there. Saying goodbye, his wisecracks and the laughter was spontaneous and contagious as he left. Jira - "Lionel is that not the man that worked politically against you and you lost your election?".

"Yes men" in relaxed mood, "the fellow thinks himself a King-maker. His brother is a Bishop and he has a robust conception of heaven on earth through politicians". "I am amazed you tolerate the man," Sir John laughed. "A good man but his honourable, decent public relations in politics makes the Biblical heaven, he envisages, too big to be marketable on earth - That is what he does not understand".

Esmond was a born tactician who could fix a tomorrow with his newspaper and enjoyed doing it constructively. Dwelling negatively on the bad yesterday, killed the very motivation which the country needed, he always said. It could cloud the mind, increase apathy, while deliberate gossip and disinformation could never make up for hurting people. He never hurt anyone. He used Aubrey Collette cartoonist and Tarzie Vittachchi to poke harmless fun.

Critics were chastising the Prime Minister on some issues and statements made in Canada. Returning, Sir John had met with the Red Indians. The Cartoon that evening had the Prime Minister waving goodbye to a Red Indian Squaw, the little Papoose tied to her back had his face.

The old man laughed loud and long - Esmond joining him was thoroughly proud of his Cartoonist Aubrey who had distracted the public and defused some weighty problem. Politically he encouraged clutter and harmless disorders and disruptions as distractions, but only for a better tomorrow. His love of his country and deep concern and Esmond used his paper to encourage campaigns - "Grow more Food', 'Green Revolution', 'Paddy Weeding", Natinal Heritage - restore Tanks - all distracting tactics that also had their own positive use and served the country.

Esmond did not believe in marches, blocking roads, causing the public delays taking children to and from school, going to hospital with life and death patients, the elderly.

To him they were self-actualizing politicians obsessed with personal self-immolation. The inconvenienced, inflation battling public had a monster reaction against strikes, disrupting their already burdened lives - there is in the city of Colombo 2 1/2 million daily workers community often from 50, 60 miles away, many daily paid. In Colombo live 1 million people.

There is no shouting Jayawewa, nor do they have empathy with strikers or marches. 50 year did not win out or change anything substantially for 25% living below the poverty line. It is a hard worked 8-hour day that will.

Esmond had the happy knack of moving around listening and chatting informally - He got unstinting support from his editors especially Denzil Pieris, whose hospitalization saw Esmond have his own car take lunch to him everyday for a month.

He valued what the 'Small' man said, his compassion for others was simple, which gave him a fuller range of immediate experiences. He would come at these problems from varying perspectives with his editors.

The election campaign '65 was reaching its last week. In the Central Province the plantation workers were not being physically appealed to vote for the party as the Sinhala vote would be jeopardized - no meetings, no house to house. Thondaman instructed to keep away. The CWC Kandy office was busy, busy busy. Thondaman was arriving from India. How will plantation workers vote, 26 electorates 4,000 - 7,000 voters in each. A CWC office in each electorate helpless.

He had time only for one meeting in Galaha tomorrow.

Rang Esmond, "If I covered Thondaman's meeting tomorrow with photographer would you print 50,000 leaflets for distribution on the estates". "How will you....."?

"Okay, okay if you say you do it, you must have found a way. Get the speech down to me quickly". Sir Razeek Fareed's secretary volunteered to take the speech down, the Shell Co executive to take the pictures - the small mini minor car bumped its way to Galaha.

You could not see a tea bush in that huge valley for humanity. Thondman walked down, the slope, garland, on garland, on garland put on him. Adulation - seeing was believing. We sat at the edge of the constructed platform - speech, photograph taken we left for Colombo.

Next morning 50,000 printed speeches in the Daily News van, we left for Kandy - One and a half days of dumping pamphlets at each electoral office for distribution.

The electorates were won, all except Teldeniya which would not be reached - JR was grateful for what we did and said so. But without Esmond making a quick decision, without consulting this regulation and that, but acting immediately on just a telephone call - it would not have happened.