By Gagani Weerakoon
Surviving in the newspaper industry of a developing country is not an easy task, and making it a profitable venture whilst sticking to a noble ethic of providing quality news with clarity in a country which fought a bloody war for 30 years, is virtually, mission impossible. However, while being a Tamil newspaper in a country where the readership is predominantly Sinhala speaking, Virakesari has not only survived for 80 years, but has expanded its scope and range beyond being just another newspaper.

P.R. Subramaniyam Chettiyar, a native of Avanipatti, a small village in South India, arrived in Ceylon, as Sri Lanka was then known. Being a writer to several newspapers in South India, he could not ignore the plight of the Indian labourers who were being ill-treated in British Ceylon. Hence, he decided to publish a newspaper with a distinct voice of its own, to promote justice and equality for those people.

Virakesari is the first Tamil Newspaper to be published in 20th century Ceylon.
“It was started as a nationalist daily paper, with the intention of safeguarding labour rights, and to date, we ensure that we address the real issues of the people. We have come so far in the industry because, from its inception, we catered to the people and their issues that needed to be highlighted and heard within the society,” said the present Managing Director- Express Newspapers (Ceylon) Ltd, K. Nadesan.

The first copy of the Virakesari issued on August 6, 1930, had eight pages, and was priced at Cts. 5. Front page of the first copy had news on court and bank vacations and also on issues in provincial areas such as Matale. Even though it is not clear as to what the lead story was of the first copy, by its layout, prominence had been given to a court ruling on the construction of Maradana mosque being postponed.

In 1948, soon after Ceylon gained independence, Parliament enacted the Ceylon Citizenship Act. Faced with the choice of obtaining Ceylonese citizenship or continuing with his Indian citizenship, Chettiar chose to return to his homeland. Prior to his departure, he sold his interests to a small group of Ceylonese citizens of Indian origin.
In 1965, during a period of political upheaval in Sri Lanka, Virakesari was taken over by a Sinhala political party, with the intention of introducing a Sinhalese national newspaper. However, the company was sued for defamation, compelling the new owners to hand over the ownership back to the earlier owners.
In 1970, Express Newspapers (Ceylon) Ltd was registered as a private company and as publisher of the Virakesari newspaper. It was the intention of the Directors that, as a company, expansion programmes could provide for a wide range of Tamil language publications for the Tamil speaking populace.

Challenges faced, Milestones set
Just like any other newspaper in the country, Virakesari also saw the wrath of certain groups in its journey of 80 years, especially during the insurrections and the civil war.
“During the conflict, when the Indian Peace Keeping Force was here, our printing machines in Jaffna were seized by one of the groups, and on another occasion, a whole lot of our newspapers were burnt in Batticaloa. But throughout, we ensured that we only took up issues, and that, our editorials never took up causes. We did not touch territorial problems. We did not want to incite the Tamil people by any means,” Nadesan said, recalling the challenges faced in the recent past.
He also noted that polarising on language should not be done, and as the company progressed, the management wanted to ensure that the Tamil speaking community also acquired proficiency in the Sinhala language, and more importantly, English.

In 1990, Express Newspapers bought over its present location, from where it puts out 14 publications today. The property was bought from the family of late President J.R. Jayewardene, and is said to be the house where President Jayewardene was born.
Express Newspapers also publishes a wide range of magazines and newspapers catering to different sectors and markets of the Tamil speaking populace.

“Apart from Virakesari, we publish the daily tabloid ‘Metro News’, the weekly magazine ‘Mithran Varmalar’, the monthly magazines ‘Sugavalvu’ and ‘Jothida Kesari’, as well as the English language magazine ‘Home Builder’. Recently we started publishing two community newspapers, ‘Vidivelli’ for the eastern Muslim community, and ‘Sooriyakanti’ for the upcountry Tamil community.

In addition, the Company also maintains a matrimonial website Thirumanam.lk which has earned wide popularity.
Express Newspapers is now a leading print media company in Sri Lanka, and a well established name within reach of an estimated three million readers islandwide. The Company has also made great strides in the IT field, being the first to launch an e-paper at www.virakesari.lk and boasts of over 2 million hits from across the world.
The Company has also upgraded its typesetting, graphic and printing departments with the latest technology. Its innovativeness was recognised when the Virakesari was judged “Best Designed Newspaper” at the Journalism Awards for Excellence 2005 and the Merit Award this year for its Metro newspaper.

Secret of Success, Future endeavours
“A well known Tamil poet, describing the bravery of the lion, once said that, even though all the other animals have a tendency to react in haste, whenever they sense danger, or anything strange or in a tense situation, lions do not rush. It takes its time to observe its environment and does the right thing, rarely missing the target. Likewise, the Virakesari, which means ‘brave lion’, does not rush or jump to conclusions, as soon as we hear of an incident. We double-check everything, and send our reporters to get on-the-spot details. That’s how we’ve maintained our standards, and become number one among Tamil newspapers in the country”, said the Editor of the Virakesari, R. Prabagan.

Sharing the secret of their success, he also said that their best strength is their employees, who are committed round-the-clock in the performance of their duties.
“More than half of our staff are females, but there is no gender inequality. Also, whenever a newcomer joins us, that person will undergo a thorough training of three months, covering all areas from typesetting, page designing, and news writing to subediting. So, in case an employee is absent, another one will undertake his/her duties, no matter which desk that person represents,” he noted.
He also emphasised that they believe in giving prominence to human interest stories, and doing thorough follow-ups on issues.

“For instance, when the tsunami happened, we did follow up stories and had special supplements for about a year, basically covering all areas from A to Z. Not only that, we also engaged in community services and helped the worst affected fishing village in the East, with necessary equipment, for them to build their lives again. Now that area is popularly known as Virakesari village,” he added.

Elaborating on their future endeavours, MD Nadesan noted that plans are already under way to encourage the Tamil diaspora to return and invest in the country, especially in the North.
“We already have 12 branches around the country, and we hope to add two more, including one in Kilinochchi. We are also hopeful that we can start our press in Jaffna once again in the near future,” he said.
Nadesan also noted that they are in the process of creating a song with a perfect music video to boost and promote the Tamil language.