A fearless and versatile wordsmith who upheld the integrity of the Fourth Estate | Sunday Observer
Fourth death anniversary of Jayatilleke de Silva

A fearless and versatile wordsmith who upheld the integrity of the Fourth Estate

26 February, 2023

The preservation of journalistic integrity has long been an ongoing battle for newspaper editors, especially those who strive to uphold diverse opinions in the face of political interference. For Jayatilleke de Silva, who occupied the Editor’s chair - for the Daily News in 2000, 2003, and 2009, and for the Sunday Observer in 2003 - this was a challenge he faced head-on. While his contemporaries sought the easier path of being overly friendly with political figures, de Silva dared to defend his journalistic integrity, and as a result, found himself cornered among ‘chosen editors’.

Jayatilleke de Silva, who departed from this world in February 2019, was a consummate journalist whose breadth of knowledge in education, politics, academia, literature, and society at large was seamlessly integrated into his journalistic work. His multifaceted expertise endowed him with a unique capacity to elevate his contributions as the Editor of both the Daily News and the Sunday Observer. De Silva was renowned for his extensive reading, an unwavering dedication to being informed, and an unbroken connection to the pulse of the world around him.

As a government newspaper, the Daily News was expected to present the government’s opinion, a task that was made even more difficult by restricted terminology and political pressure. However, de Silva refused to compromise the truth and fought to maintain the readership’s trust, which he believed was paramount to the paper’s success.

Diverse opinions

Despite facing constant scrutiny and pressure from political figures, de Silva remained steadfast in his commitment to presenting diverse opinions and avoiding being a mere mouthpiece for those in power. When asked to give page one publicity to a Parliamentarian’s criticism of another individual, de Silva refused, explaining that the story did not warrant such coverage. In another instance, a media advisor to a VVIP wanted his write-up to appear as an editorial in the Daily News, but de Silva exercised his authority as editor and published the piece elsewhere, bylined as ‘a special correspondent’.

De Silva’s refusal to play to the whims and fancies of political bosses earned him their ire, but his commitment to journalistic integrity never wavered. He believed that political figures often saw things in black and white, failing to notice the grey areas that were crucial to presenting the truth. Despite the challenges he faced, de Silva remained a dedicated journalist, always striving to keep the paper from losing its esteem.

De Silva was acutely aware of the potency of language and demonstrated exceptional prowess in articulating his thoughts in a manner that was unparalleled in both Sinhala and English. As a result, his columns in both languages were ardently anticipated by readers and, at times, were met with disdain by politicians and other influential figures who frequently found themselves the subject of his acerbic criticism. Nevertheless, he was devoid of any trepidation, standing firm in his convictions and fighting for what he deemed was just. For instance, when a superior censured him for publishing a report that offended a prominent advertiser, he resolutely supported his reporter and resigned from his position.

Professional career

Jayatilleke de Silva, born in 1938 in the town of Ambalangoda, was a distinguished alumnus of the prestigious Colombo University. Beginning his professional career as a teacher, he served as the Principal of Deniyaya Central College for a brief period before transitioning to a full-time career in politics. As a committed member of the Sri Lanka Communist Party for several decades, de Silva was actively involved in the political landscape of the country. De Silva’s initial immersion into the realm of journalism was through the auspices of the Aththa newspaper, which was affiliated with the Sri Lanka Communist Party. It wasn’t long before he established himself as a distinguished author and translator of numerous seminal treatises pertaining to socialism and other political ideologies. Among his most renowned literary accomplishments is the Herculean task of producing a voluminous three-part Sinhala translation of Karl Marx’s seminal work, Das Kapital, which remains an enduring masterpiece in the annals of Sri Lankan literature.

After retiring from politics, de Silva returned to journalism, where he continued to make a significant impact. His sharp editorials and journalistic acumen earned him a reputation as a fearless writer and critical analyst of contemporary politics. Even after leaving the Daily News, de Silva continued to write political columns for both English and Sinhala newspapers, and his Cross Currents column in the Daily News was eagerly awaited by readers.

Jayatilleke de Silva’s unwavering commitment to journalistic integrity, even in the face of political pressure, serves as a testament to the vital role of the Fourth Estate in upholding the truth and preserving the readership’s trust. His contributions to journalism and politics have left an indelible mark, and his unpublished works will undoubtedly be eagerly anticipated by those who value the pursuit of truth and journalistic excellence.

Final hours

De Silva’s passion for journalism was undeniable and continued until the end of his life. He remained committed to staying informed and up-to-date on current events, as evidenced by his request for a copy of the Daily News even in his final hours. His dedication to the field of journalism was further exemplified by his continued contribution to newspapers through his columns, which he wrote until just weeks before his passing. Despite his age and failing health, his commitment to journalism remained steadfast, a testament to his unwavering love for the profession.

The late Jayatilleke de Silva was not just a journalist, but a true luminary in the field. His extensive knowledge and experience in various domains of life, coupled with his exceptional linguistic skills, enabled him to produce remarkable pieces of writing that were eagerly awaited by readers across the country. He fearlessly stood up for what he believed in and never shied away from speaking truth to power, even at the risk of incurring the wrath of powerful individuals and organisations. His legacy as a journalist, writer, and intellectual will continue to inspire generations to come, and his contributions to the field of journalism and politics in Sri Lanka will be remembered for years to come.