Mallika Wanigasundara: Trail-blazer in issue-based journalism

I seem to be writing many obituaries and tributes these days. Following the several I wrote on Sir Arthur C Clarke and the blog post I did on Cambidian photojournalist Dith Pran, I want to share this tribute I wrote today on a senior Sri Lankan journalist who embarked on her final voyage this weekend.

Mallika Wanigasundara:
Trail-blazer in issue-based journalism

Mallika Wanigasundara, who passed away on 4 April 2008 aged 81, was a talented and sensitive Sri Lankan journalist who went in search of causes and process that shape the everyday news headlines. In doing so, she blazed new trails in issue-based journalism, covering topics ranging from health and environment to children, women and social justice.

It was only last year that the Editors Guild of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Press Institute presented her the Lifetime Achievement Gold Medal for Excellence in Journalism.

Mallika was associated with the Sri Lankan media in one capacity or another for over half a century. Starting her professional career in 1956 with the Sinhala evening daily Janatha, she later moved on to English language journalism at Lake House where she worked first in The Observer and then at Daily News. It was as Features Editor of this oldest English daily that she played a key role in practising and nurturing development journalism. She helped evolve the genre to new levels of professionalism, liberating it from the typecast of politically motivated, sometimes fabricated ‘sunshine’ stories that had been forced on the state-owned Lake House newspapers during the 1970s.

Mallika also helped put Sri Lanka on the world map of development journalism. Beginning in the early 1980s, she contributed Sri Lankan stories to Depthnews, published by the Press Foundation of Asia based in Manila, and to Panos Features, syndicated globally by the Panos Institute in London. In those pre-web days, these services – when printed in newspapers and magazines – were among the most dependable sources for ground level reporting from far corners of the world. (Alas, both services have since gone the way of the Dodo – not to mention Asiaweek, South and Gemini.)

Although I grew up in the 1980s reading her writing in Daily News, my own contacts with Mallika were few and far between. The first was indirect and happened in the late 1980s, when as an eager young reporter I started contributing to Panos Features, syndicated from London to several hundred newspapers around the world. Mallika remained the Panos Sri Lanka correspondent and I was merely a stringer. Donatus de Silva, then head of programmes at Panos London, somehow found a clear niche for both of us. At the time, Mallika and I exchanged occasional communications.

As a novice, I studied Mallika’s approach and style, and emulated them both. Hers was an easy, reader-friendly prose: it brought in both expert views and grassroots insights, but with none of the technicality or pomposity – and very little editorialising. Although she was fully supportive of the various social and environmental causes, she didn’t allow activist rhetoric to dominate her journalism. She also ventured beyond the predictable ‘green’ issues to cover many ‘brown’ issues. Two decades after the Brundtland Commission on Environment and Development (1987) that thrust sustainable development into the global agenda, it’s precisely this kind of journalism that’s needed to make sense of our fast-moving, slowly-baking, topsy-turvy world.

Mallika continued to be an active freelancer after she retired from Lake House. She seemed more prolific in retirement – she continued to chronicle the rise of the environmental movement in Sri Lanka, which emerged from citizen campaigns to save the Sinharaja rain forest from state-sponsored logging and evolved through crises and protests in the 1980s and beyond.

In 1990, she was selected by the United Nations Environment Programme for the Global 500 award that recognised environmental achievements of individuals and organisations. She was the first Sri Lankan journalist to be thus honoured, and one of only four Sri Lankans to be inducted into this global roll of honour that eventually included over 600 persons or entities worldwide.

At the time, I was hosting a weekly TV quiz show on Rupavahini (national TV) and decided to set one of my questions on Mallika receiving the Global 500. I phoned her to offer my congratulations and asked for a photo that we may use on the TV show. She was happy to be the basis of a question, but declined giving a photo, saying: ‘I don’t look good in photos or on TV’.

It was characteristic of many accomplished journalists of her generation that they remained mostly in the background, shaping news coverage and analysis. Some even didn’t nurture a personal by-line, writing under pseudonyms or simply not signing their names on their work. What a contrast with the image-conscious, in-your-face radio and TV journalism of today, where even respected newspaper editors eagerly pursue parallel careers as talk show hosts or TV pundits.

Read my essay on environmental journalism 20 years after Brundtland, published in SciDev.Net in April 2007

Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

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