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 Post subject: The oldest Sinhalese newspaper turns 140
 Post Posted: Thu Jul 06, 2006 2:34 am 
Church-run Sinhalese paper turns 140

July 5,2006 /@ UCAN

Colombo (UCAN) -- A Church-run newspaper, the oldest Sinhalese newspaper in Sri Lanka, marked its 140th anniversary recently with a change in format.

On June 25, Gnanartha Pradeepaya (lamp of wisdom) weekly, published by Colombo archdiocese, appeared in a tabloid-size, 10-column anniversary edition.

The paper was founded by John Fernando, a layman, on June 7, 1866, and started out as a four-page broadsheet of Church news and papal speeches, put out by a team of eight people and one priest, Father Peter Elari.

Today, the national weekly paper has 18 pages, with its front and back pages in full color. Over the decades, the paper has developed from merely reporting Church news and papal speeches to also highlighting political, social and economic issues in the country, but from a Christian perspective.

According to the paper's present editor, Father Cyril Gamini Fernando, the team recently discussed changing the newspaper's format. "We will give the paper a new look by rearranging the sections" and grouping the news under various categories, he told UCA News.

"Special pages will be allocated for the family, women and youth. We will also continue to run as a recognized national paper and continue with the publishing of articles on politics, economics, and social issues," he added.

The paper presently enjoys a weekly circulation of more than 20,000, with most of its readers from the rural areas, a phenomenon that Hector Welgampola discovered when he was the paper's editor 1971-87.

"I did a survey of the readership, which revealed that the vast majority of readers were (Catholic) youths from rural areas in Sri Lanka," said Welgampola, 74. "Many of the readers from rural areas would write to me and state their problems in the villages."

As editor, he also enjoyed "a lot of rapport with the laypeople," and this allowed the paper "to report on matters of significance," he recalled. After leaving the paper, Welgampola served as UCA News executive editor until he retired in 2001.

The paper has highlighted and championed various issues since it began. In its first year, which was during British colonial rule, the paper petitioned the island's governor for help after rice production around the country fell. The governor responded by sending 1,000 pounds to help support people in affected areas financially.

The paper also has taken stands for women's rights and education reforms, and strongly opposed the nationalization of religious schools by the government in the 1960s.

Public issues the paper has given wide coverage in recent years include opposition to the setting up of a coal-fired power plant in Norochcholai, 100 kilometers north of Colombo; elections; corruption; and a bill introduced in 2004 that would restrict religious conversions. It also has highlighted anti-religion prejudices, drug abuse, alcoholism and human rights.

In Welgampola's experience, "the Pradeepaya was never influenced by the government nor any 'top notches.' It was an independent paper and we did not have to ask permission to publish a story nor fear to write the truth."

Father Benedict Joseph, who was editor 1992-2005, told UCA News the people who started the paper had "a burning desire to build up the Church" as well as a broad vision. "What we did was to take important issues and publish them from the Christian point of view. We also focused on the many challenges faced by the Church, and gave them in-depth analysis."

He added that Gnanartha Pradeepaya aims to make people aware not only of "problems" in society but also of "solutions."

Readers told UCA News they appreciate the paper. Some also suggested ways to improve it. Rosemary Perera, a Colombo homemaker, praised the paper for its informativeness and for giving a voice to Catholics in the rural areas. "We are facing difficult times now in Sri Lanka, and since the Pradeepaya has always been fearless and accurate in its stories, I feel it should focus more than ever on what people are going through in these hard times," she remarked.

Alex Collas, a secretary at St. Mary's Church near Colombo, said he felt the paper reported news accurately and is "independent in its views."

The layman suggested that "in the future, the paper should focus a lot more on the political happenings in Sri Lanka, and highlight the increasing acts of violence (between the government and Tamil rebels) and economic struggles, as these are the most important factors affecting people today."

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