5th August 2001
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Pressing on

As other newspapers in war-torn Jaffna crumbled under governmental or financial pressure, the Uthayan has continued publication since 1996, providing information to desperate residents
By Feizal Samath
As government troops pounded Jaffna in October 1995, journalists from the city's main newspaper joined hundreds of civilians fleeing from the area to safer ground.

They didn't go empty handed though. Uthayan journalists and editors loaded a printing machine, a generator and newsprint onto a truck and moved to Sarasalai, about 15 km away from Jaffna and began publishing the newspaper from a temporary office.

"We published the newspaper from this temporary location for six months until April 1996," recalled Nadesapillai Vithyatharan, the newspaper's associate editor. The paper returned to its original office after troops drove the rebels away from Jaffna.

Uthayan loosely translated into English means "morning". The name aptly fits a newspaper that has always been in the homes of residents at daybreak despite the difficulties of operating in a war zone.

The October 1995 drama is nothing compared to the bullets, bombs and mayhem the paper and its journalists have braved during its 16-year history. The Uthayan has received local and international recognition and is a deserving example of a free press in action - if at all - for its perseverance in ensuring publication under trying circumstances.

"We have faced it all - threats and harassment from the LTTE, other militant groups, the Indian Peacekeeping force and Sri Lankan troops. It is difficult but we are prepared for the worst," said Vithyatharan, adding that most civilians in Jaffna now take trouble in their stride.

Other journalists, who worked for Jaffna newspapers during their heyday and are now based in Colombo, also recalled the difficult times. "We used to hide in bunkers in the newspaper compound during bombing raids by the Air Force," said a journalist who worked for the now-defunct Eeelanadu newspaper.

While newspapers in the city have come and gone due to a variety of reasons like bankruptcy or simply being seized by rebel forces, the Uthayan has struggled and suffered, but held its own and engaged in its own freedom struggle.

Uthayan publishers are going one step further now. They are helping promote visits by journalists from the Sinhalese-dominated south and going to great lengths to make the stay of visitors as comfortable as possible. 

"We would like more and more journalists to visit the north and see the situation for themselves. We are prepared to host them," Vithyatharan said, adding that he was planning to refurnish his family home as a "guest" house for visiting journalists.

The associate editor, whose family runs the newspaper, performs two other tasks in addition to his editorial responsibilities. He is standing in for chief editor M.V. Kanamylanathan, injured in a road accident last month, and for office manager C. Nandakumar who died in another road accident in May this year.

Ironically both accidents occurred at the same spot on the road to the Pallaly military airbase with speeding vehicles from the Army and the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) being responsible.

Both newspaper executives were travelling on motorbicycles when the accidents occured. "This is another problem that affects civilians. Army and EPDP vehicles speed on the roads probably fearing attacks by the LTTE and as a result civilians in other vehicles have to be very careful," the Uthayan editor said.

Kanamylanathan has been hospitalised in Colombo with a leg injury that will take weeks to heal.

Uthayan, now a 14-page newspaper, began as a three-page paper on November 27, 1985 but is embarrassed to celebrate its anniversary. "A few years after our paper was launched the Tigers declared November 27 as Martyrs day and began marking that day with celebrations and rallies," laughed Vithyatharan.

Despite the war, Jaffna's newspaper industry is flourishing and is more vibrant than that of any other city - outside Colombo. That's also because residents are desperate for information and rely on the print media for happenings inside and outside the peninsula. There is little or no competition from television or radio.

In fact state-television Rupavahini - which has the largest reach amongst the seven Colombo-based TV stations - can't be viewed in Jaffna due to communication problems. When Swarnavahini showed a cricket tournament from Sharjah in which Sri Lanka was participating, the action was in painfully slow motion throughout the game.

News channels from India, are clearer. 

When Uthayan hit the news stands in 1985, there were two other papers - Eelanadu and Eelamurusu - followed by Murasoli in 1986. In 1987 the Eelamurusu was taken over by the LTTE and the Eeelanadu, the oldest paper, launched in the 1960s, was also taken over by the same group in 1994 following a labour dispute at the paper.

The Saturday Review, which emerged in the 1980s as the only English newspaper published in Jaffna, with veteran journalist Gamini Navaratne as its editor, made a major impact but survived for just five to six years. Since 1996 however, the Uthayan has been the only newspaper in Jaffna as others have either crumbled under pressure from government and rebel forces, or become impossible to run due to lack of finances .

"We have been threatened by all militant groups during the 1980s and the 1990s," said Vithyatharan. He says the current environment in Jaffna, which is under the control of government forces, for newspapers to operate in is much better than it had been in the past though absolute freedom doesn't exist.

"There is pressure from the government and the LTTE and other militant groups but we have learnt to deal with this, given our experience in the past," he said.

In 1987 Indian peacekeepers, annoyed by what was being published, fired mortar rounds at the newspaper office. They fell some distance away but unfortunately 40 civilians were killed in that attack. "The IPKF had bombed two other newspapers the previous day and were targetting our premises that day," he said.

The paper has also suffered due to bombing by government forces. When the Jaffna Fort fell to the Tigers, somewhere in 1991, the Tigers were piqued with the paper for reporting that the Army had withdrawn from the Fort instead of "being chased away."

"We were about to be closed by the Tigers but a bombing raid by the Air Force, in fact, saved us," said Vithyatharan. The Tigers then shifted strategy and helped the paper to recover in a bid to show the authorities that the "public voice could not be stifled". Uthayan has even published inside bunkers during severe bombing raids in the late 1980s. The paper had three bunkers, which are still being maintained in the compound, complete with printing press and a generator and space for about 50 people to work in.

Another unique aspect of the paper is the employment of women as compositors to make some of the pages that are printed on the old letterpress. The Uthayan, in addition to its 14,000-plus circulation, also has a loyal following on the Internet after the paper went online.

"We get thousands of hits per day from Sri Lankan Tamils living abroad who want to check the obituaries or the developments in Jaffna," the associate editor said, adding that the paper was contemplating promoting web advertising.

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