Face2Face with Palitha Perera
by Tilak S. Fernando in London

Palitha Perera's rich, powerful and clear voice may not register with Sri Lankans these days immediately, but definitely among the cricket enthusiasts in Sri Lanka as he is still well known as a cricket commentator in Sinhala for decades.

Palitha joined the Radio Ceylon in January 1963 as a newscaster and his ability, professionalism, talent and intellectual capacity took him to the position of the Director of Sinhala Service in 1991.

Subsequent to the 1994 political storm that swept across the country, Palitha got entrapped inside a different kind of 'inhouse-political-tornedo' where nepotism, skulduggery, back biting, posterior stabbing and belittling by restricting him to write gate passes. When the tide turned against him completely he decided to throw the towel in and walked out of the building never to step inside again, even though realising that after 35 years of service he had only Rs.917 in his bank account, three children and a wife to support with no imminent job in the horizon.

The psychological trauma that followed made him undergo a major by-pass heart surgery. From the day he walked out of the SLBC (his 2nd home), he appears to be an emotionally broken man due to injustices, inequalities and discrimination meted out to him by the work of a single individual. I met with Palitha Perera during his recent visit to London at the invitation of Lilani Perera to be the master of ceremonies of two live programmes and managed to have a face-2- face chat. In my mind he is a hurt person having received a lot of emotional sledge hammer blows and is still suffering from its gaping wounds and most of the answers during the interview appeared to be still tainted with 'blood'!

Q. Your motto is that, being very professional in your work, you never go in front of a microphone or a camera unprepared for an interview. So, in that perspective, let me ask you what is the special significance of the number 1 in your life that you seem to cherish so much?

A. Nice one Tilak, let me tell you then: I have had only One school, One Job and One wife in my life!

Q. When did you start on your broadcasting career?

A. After my university entrance examination I joined the Radio Ceylon in January 1963 as a newscaster. In 1991 I became the Director of Sinhala Service.

Q. How about your contributions to the Sri Lankan Television

A. At the opening ceremony of Rupavahini I, as the first announcer to be on air live, had the privilege of sending the very first greeting to the nation just after it was declared open by the H.E.the late president, J. R. Jayawardhane. I have been to the UK, Germany and the USA on training in broadcasting. I was always fascinated by David Frost's BBC breakfast shows and had a dream to emulate Frost one day on Sri Lankan television which I did subsequently by becoming the architect of breakfast shows in Sri Lankan television with programmes such as Jana Manddelee, Suba Udasanak and Auybowan

Q. Did you really have the freedom in your programmes in the same manner as David Frost did in his interviews?

A. As you know Tilak, we do not have the same democracy or press freedom in Sri Lanka. Having said that, although it was difficult to press a politician or a minister hundred percent on a question or on an issue, I was able to push my interviewees to very fine and permissible boundaries.

Q. Did you work both in the Radio and the Rupavahini simultaneously?

A. No, I did TV shows only as a freelancer whenever my services were called upon, but no editorial responsibility. I just presented a TV programme and went home. In 1992 I presented a very popular programme called Pilisandara (face 2 face) from TNL channel. It was a 30-minute programme of hard talk where I grilled prominent figures in Sri Lanka such as Ven. Sobitha Thero, UNP Secretary Gamini Wijesekera, Gamini Fonseka, our minister of broadcasting himself, A. J. Ranasinghe etc. Subsequently Mr. Shan Wickremesinghe introduced Jana Handa from TNL and Mr. Wasantha Raja started Jana Mandalee at the Rupavahini in 1995. Now of course, these type of political programmes are very common on Radio also.

Q. What made you give up your Director of Sinhala Service job at the SLBC?

A. It was not a voluntary resignation Tilak, but a case of knife in the back situation and getting kicked so hard to the extent of making me write gate passes as the Director of Sinhala Service! I, in fact, asked the Director General once whether writing of gate passes was my executive responsibility as the Director of Sinhala Service!

Q. How come and what happened?

A. After the 1994 general elections in the country a political appointment was made of the Director General's position of the SLBC. I was personally happy to see a junior colleague from our News Section promoted to that level. I congratulated him and assured him every support, as I knew he did not have any previous experience or handled programmes before. However, I guess, he seemingly felt I was a threat to his prestigious position and saw me equally as a professional peril! As I said before, when I was doing face-to-face interviews on television I built up an image in the country as a broadcaster. Once I did a serious interview with Prof. G.L. Peiris, when he was a minister in the PA government on the 'Devolution Package', which was a hot potato at the time. Professor Peiris gave me some selected questions of his choice and expected me to throw them at him at the interview. Instead, I decided to question him from my own prepared list of questions on the live programme.

Q. I am sure the Minister would not have been too pleased about it!

A. Yes indeed! He reported me to the President after the recording at Visumpaya. However, President Kumaratunge having watched the tape in the company of other senior officials of the Rupavahini was highly taken up with my interviewing techniques and, instead of a reprimand I received an invitation to interview the President.

Q. Did you?

A. Yes. I did a few interviews as she always insisted on me to interview her after the GL Peiris saga. But the only problem was that the President, being very informal and friendly at TV interviews, gives the impression to the audience that the interviewer is a 'close buddy' of hers! This perhaps went against me and, may be my Director General friend among thousands of other viewers across the country thought I was very influential with the President. Seemingly the new Director General began to develop cold feet and became paranoid!

Q Quite interesting, what happened then?

A As a radical move the Director General started to reorganise the Sinhala Section and started to air political programmes on Sinhala National Service, at the SLBC. Later he brought a notion that he could not work with me and formed a separate team and made life hell for me and instructed me to write gate passes only! Can you just imagine that ? Didn't I too have some self-respect?

Q So it was not governmental politics in a literal sense then that harassed you but a different kind of politics within the environs of your job?

A True. Government politics did not enter the scene here at all because I had no allegiance to any political party. I have worked under different administrations in Sri Lanka but never served under a single politician. My service was always to the Government of the day and my strong areas were to maintain justice and impartiality in discharging my responsibilities. Whether it was a weak or strong point, I must tell you that I never hesitated to call spade a spade and even when I was included in Interviewing Boards I never paid any heed to outside pressures which always tried to influence management decisions. In that sense whatever the govt came to power I appeared to be on the other side of the fence because it is the way that the Sri Lankan society is based on, and how governments are conducted!

Q Well , as the Director General he obvious had the powers to hire or fire any of his subordinates, didn't he?

A. Correct. But my protest and the struggle was always to maintain our cultural identity through the National Service of the Radio rather than letting it slide down to unacceptable levels. I always maintained that we had a responsibility from the Sinhala Service to protect our country's old Sinhala values and traditions, because the SLBC Sinhala Service was the only broadcasting house which had such a format to safeguard our traditional and moral values.

Q. How about the impact on the SLBC by private broadcasting stations that cropped up?

A. During my time when I was fighting single-handed to propagate our cultural values Sirasa Radio sprung up. They were doing completely the opposite and their slogan was that they brought the Radio from the kitchen to the sitting room. But the intellectual majority of listeners started to boycott it. I was said to be accused by personnel at Sirasa Radio as an old fashioned stooge who was unable to move with the times. I had a market share of 29% of the listening audience officially at the time, and I could not possibly disappoint or maroon them even if I wanted to. It's fascinating, however, to see today that Sirasa Radio who criticised my programmes then are doing the same format of programmes at weekends now. I am pleased to see today that Sirasa Radio who started walking inside mucky drains those days has been able to come out today and is walking on the proper road.

Q. What regrets have you now?

A. Tilak, the only disappointment is that I am still a capable performer and broadcaster. I read a lot and in my sitting room and if you come to my home you will see only for chairs to sit and the rest is full of bookracks and a comprehensive library. On a daily basis I update my knowledge on a wider scale and I can still challenge (without being pompous) any young journalist in Sri Lanka today on any subject - be it internal politics, world politics, cricket, culture, drama, cinema and you name it and I am on the ball! I am a person who tries to become a new man every day, but my greatest regret is that in Sri Lanka talent and capability appear to go unrecognised still ! In that sense it is sad to see that even my ability, my knowledge, my experience and the broadcasting know-how is becoming my greatest enemy today.

Q. Why haven't you been able to find a suitable job? Is it because you are unwilling to shift from a confined Director of Sinhala Service frame in the past?

A. No Tilak, you are wrong there. When I resigned from the SLBC I approached Newspaper establishments and all other broadcasting houses purely because I needed the money to raise three kids and look after a wife. I tried Sirasa as well because a very senior director friend of mine at the Maharaja Organisation requested me to submit my application to Sirasa.

Q So, what happened?

A. It was lying there for two months. Later when I found out that it was stagnated in a pigeonhole of an officer, who once worked under me at the SLBC , I withdrew my application.

Q. Were there no other openings or requests?

A. Actually two Ministers from the PA and three politicians of the UNF invited me to come and work with them but I had to decline such offers because I would not have been able to work in a political environment for more than days the longest!

Q. Why should you feel remorse still, after all these years?

A. Tilak, at an Enquiry Board comprising the Media Minister, the Director General along with a full panel of senior executives of the SLBC to resolve the differences between the DG and myself I produced all hard documentary evidence to prove that the DG was after my blood for no fault of mine. It became crystal clear to everyone at the enquiry, including the Minister, that I had been subjected to unwarranted trauma. But when I heard the words that came out of the Minister's mouth, I quote: " Palitha, you realise that I cannot sack the Director General, therefore, you take your own decision', I felt as if my heart was going to split open. I felt like jumping out of that building and ending my life at that very moment. Following day I handed over my resignation and have never stepped into the SLBC building. I was so sad to note that after working for 35 years there was not a single cultured person in that establishment at lest to give me telephone call besides saying 'thank you' or to acknowledge what I had contributed to the Sri Lankan Radio over the years!

Q. How have you reconciled now?

A. Ever since I left the SLBC I have been a freelancer and have been a presenter whenever I was invited to perform. That is why I am here today in London. I have no choice and that is the only way of existence now. I have presented programmes in all Sri Lankan TV channels and I am quite known as a sports commentator as I was the first official SLBC broadcaster who introduced Sinhala cricket commentary and continuing it up to date. In 1971 I was awarded the BBC's Best Feature Presenter award. As I said before Tilak, unlike others I do not have to get up in the morning to go for a job as such and with my talents, experience, and with the updated knowledge on a daily basis I have still to await till my telephone rings from a prospective enthusiast who needs my services! That is Sri Lanka, I am afraid, and as Ven. Madihe Pangnasiha Thero also said: " Before the country, you should develop the citizens in the country" (Rata hadanna kaling minisa hadanna öne )I love the country but we can't make the people." Because he said "")