by Dr. Siri Galhenage
John Stuart Mill [1806-73], English philosopher, political economist and parliamentarian, extrapolated the concept of market competition to a theory of free speech which opposed censorship in favour of free flow of ideas. He used the phrase ‘marketplace of ideas’ as a metaphor for freedom of expression. Asserting that no one could claim ownership of the truth, he said that ideas left unchallenged will lead to dogma and authoritarianism. He claimed that free expression is the best way to separate falsehood from fact and for the advancement of truth, a valued commodity in a democracy. [On Liberty 1859]
Living in an era of social, political and economic upheaval, both nationally and internationally, there is a great demand for information and its impact on our lives. Along with the intense public interest for such information, there is an equal degree of scrutiny of its coverage by media outlets in arriving at the truth.
Judging by its readership, The Island has gained recognition as a valued medium of free expression. It is more than a news outlet. Over a period of four decades it has established itself as a marketplace of ideas offering a plurality of themes. Amongst those who use the journal as a platform for free discourse of ideas are historians, educationists, economists, scientists, administrative officers, aviators, social critics, political analysts, literary critics, environmentalists, artists, religious leaders, lawyers, engineers and medical colleagues – many of whom of high standing in the community. The list is not meant to be exhaustive. The ability of The Island to lure the above contributors is a measure of the high esteem the paper is held by the English-speaking readership.
There is a daily offering of ideas and concerns expressed through the Opinion columns, the subject matter determined by the social and political atmosphere of the day, and energised by the emotional attitude of the writer. The contributors to the Features columns, The Midweek Review and Satmag are motivated by such matters as aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse and political purpose; in other words, a desire to share an experience considered valuable or beautiful; to draw out an episode from the past with a view to storing it up for posterity; or to express a vision for a kind of society that we should strive for.
The editorial takes centre stage as the pace setter for the free flow of ideas. It captures the emotional tone of the nation, and supports the community in holding the government of the day to account, no matter its political persuasion or the pickle they have got into. It continues to expose corrupt practices and secret deals, decisions made without public scrutiny, resists any attempt at censorship. The editor gives voice to a range of concerns [which many of us can only ruminate on] with his distinctive turn of phrase, at times satirical and spiced up, with a local adage or a Shakespearean quote that is appealing to many a reader.
Lest I forget Jeffrey, who gives expression to the plight of the down-trodden with his caricature of the common man carrying his tattered and bottomless shopping bag. In a recent timely cartoon, he stands at the edge of a precipice, escorted by the leaders of both sides of politics, soon to be thrown into the abyss – leaving the fate of all three gentlemen to the imagination of the reader!
It is regrettable that over the past few decades there has been a decline in printed media due to the rise of the internet, the problem exacerbated by the pandemic. Digitally communicating information through social media costs less, is fast, and may be more appealing to the advertisers who bring in revenue. But there is a downside. Social media provides only a narrow range of opinions and the information provided may not always be credible; it may not cover important topics, and may be driven by pressure groups of a particular ideology. Furthermore, people may tend to adjust their online experience to suit their viewpoints. Corporate ownership is geared towards maximising profits; it lowers the quality of true journalism and community service. It does not encourage respectful discourse of ideas essential for democracy to function optimally.
The decline of literacy and its concomitant effects in our society has struck a deep vein of public feeling at the present time – the word literacy used here not only to mean the ability to read and write, but to cover the wider concept of social competence – an essential component of education.
At the heart of the poverty and emptiness of our society today lies the decline of the printed word. We have lost our romance with the written word and hence to the eclipse of aesthetic, moral and ethical sensibility, and our social conscience. It is a sad indictment on a nation that took pride in an ancient literary heritage that formed the very foundation of our civilisation. We have failed to heed the advice of the Vadan Kavi Potha: ‘elmen acuru uganivu idri veda thaka’. [Learn your letters with love, for future good].
It is my honour to pay this brief tribute to The Island on reaching its 40th birthday. The journal is a social asset. My hope is that with a wider circulation, both in printed and digital form, it will become more acquiescent to the rural folk and the young in the coming decade, but that’s only a dream in a nation that has procrastinated in rectifying the inequity in English education. A quality newspaper can play an educative role during the formative years of a child.
Sadly, at the present time, The Island has ‘slimmed down’, afflicted by the pandemic. The expectation of the loyal readership of this esteemed journal is to revitalize itself. At 40, life is still beginning! If I may end with a plea to its administration and the editor: keep the light burning and continue to pursue the Truth; darkness is fast approaching!
In the words of Leo Tolstoy, one of the great novelists of all time [if not the greatest], and a former war correspondent in the Crimean War: “the hero of my tale, whom I love with all the strength of my soul, whom I have tried to set forth in all his beauty, and who has been, is, and always will be most beautiful is – The Truth.” [Sevastopol Sketches]