Sri Lanka has an extensive English-language media, including numerous newspapers and radio stations, though journalistic standards are not especially high, thanks at least partly to heavy-handed state control exercised over large sections of the media. Numerous journalists were threatened, abducted or even murdered during the final phase of the civil war, and government repression of outspoken media critics remains a reality of the current regime, leading to the largely tame press you see today.
There are also several good, independent online resources for Sri Lankan news. The Colombo Telegraph, run by a group of expatriate journalists, is particularly good, while the BBC has a huge searchable archive of stories dating back to around 1997, while BBC Sinhala offers a dedicated portal for breaking Sri Lankan news.
Newspapers and magazines
Sri Lanka has a good spread of English-language newspapers, including three dailies, The Island, the Daily Mirror and the Daily News, and Sunday papers, the Sunday Observer and the Sunday Times, the last is particularly known for its outspoken criticism of the government, which led to the killing of its editor, Lasantha Wickramatunga, in 2009. The Daily News and Sunday Observer are both owned by the government and are little better than feeble, fifth-rate propaganda. Standards are higher in the independent papers, though all devote the majority of their coverage to domestic politics and cricket and tend to be generally cautious in criticism of the government, for obvious reasons.
There are also a fair number of English-language magazines available. The long-running Explore Sri Lanka has decent, tourist-oriented articles about all aspects of the island, while it’s also worth looking out for back copies of the excellent (though now sadly defunct) Travel Sri Lanka. The business-focussed LMD also sometimes runs interesting general features on the island. Hi!! magazine – Sri Lanka’s answer to Hello! – is essential reading for anyone seeking an insight into the Colombo cocktail-party circuit.
There are a surprising number of English-language radio stations in Sri Lanka, although reception can be hit and miss outside Colombo and most stations broadcast on a confusing variety of frequencies in different parts of the island. Most stations churn out a predictable diet of mainstream Western pop, sometimes presented by hilariously inept DJs. The main broadcasters include Yes FM, Lite FM, plus Gold FM, which dishes up retro-pop and easy listening. One Sinhala-language station that you might end up hearing a lot of (especially if you’re travelling around by bus) is Shree FM (99.0 and other frequencies; w shree.fm), beloved of bus drivers all over the island and offering a toe-curling diet of Sinhala pop interspersed by terrible adverts. For a more interesting selection of local music, try Sirasa FM.
You’re not likely to spend much time watching Sri Lankan television. There are three state-run channels (Rupavahini, Channel Eye and ITN), which broadcast almost entirely in Sinhala and Tamil, plus various local satellite TV channels which offer a small selection of English-language programming – though this is a fairly deadly mixture of shopping programmes, children’s shows, pop music, soaps and the occasional duff film. Rooms in most top-end (and some mid-range) hotels have satellite TV, usually offering international news programmes from the BBC and/or CNN along with various channels from the India-based Star TV, including movies and sports.
Sri Lankan cinema has a long history, although it continues to struggle to escape the huge shadow cast by the film industry in neighbouring India; the increasingly wide availability of television poses another challenge. The first Sinhala-language Sri Lankan film was Kadawunu Poronduwa (Broken Promise), premiered in 1947, although the first truly Sinhalese film is generally considered to be Lester James Peries’ Rekawa (Line of Destiny), of 1956, which broke with the Indian all-singing all-dancing model and attempted a realistic portrayal of Sri Lankan life. Peries went on to score further triumphs with films like Gamperaliya (Changing Village), based on a novel by Martin Wickramasinghe, and served as a role model for a new generation of Sri Lankan directors. Modern Sri Lankan filmmakers have tended to focus on themes connected with the country’s civil war, most famously in Prasanna Vithanage’s Death on a Full Moon Day (1997), which portrays a blind and naive father who refuses to accept the death of his soldier son. At present, about a hundred films are released each year in Sri Lankan cinemas, with offerings in English, Tamil, Sinhala and Hindi. Sri Lankan-made films are almost exclusively in Sinhala, apart from a few in Tamil.
There are only a very modest number of cinemas on the island, concentrated largely in Colombo. A couple show recent Hollywood blockbusters in English; others specialize in Tamil, Hindi and Sinhala releases, and are easily spotted by their huge advertising hoardings showing rakish, moustachioed heroes clutching nubile heroines. Tickets for all movies cost around a dollar. You might also catch screenings of more highbrow Sri Lankan movies at cultural centres in Colombo and Kandy.