Must ‘3rd class journalists’ die? 

Respect is a two-way process. Those who give it are most likely to get it, and those who receive it usually tend to give it. However, in most cases, people think of respect as something that needs to be demanded, or in some cases, something that needs to be forcibly obtained, and they are signs of a decadent society. 

However, what determines whether a person is respectable, or the degree or the extent of respect that a person deserves, are subjective matters, and people do not always share a similar perspective in this connection. 

A video widely circulated via the electronic media recently showed the Health Ministry’s Communications Director and the Public Health Services Deputy Director General Dr. Hemantha Herath, saying that a majority of journalists who got killed were ‘third class journalists’. Even though he subsequently elaborated that this is not to say that certain journalists whom he termed as ‘respectable’ do not face harassment, the statement caused controversy, and many feel that it was uncalled for. 

However, following the statement in question, Dr. Herath told The Morning on 7 June that he had already expressed his apologies in this connection, and conveyed regret. 

It must also be noted that what triggered his statement in the first place, however, has not been revealed. However, what the concerned citizens feel, despite Dr. Herath’s apology, is that regardless of the circumstances under which the said statement was made, such statements are unjustifiable. Also, it would not be an overstatement to say that such sentiments are quite capable of reminding all of several dark chapters in Sri Lanka’s history where a number of journalists were abducted, censored and even murdered. 

It also begs the question as to whether those journalists were in fact and indeed ‘third class journalists’. The bigger question is, even if a journalist can be classified as a ‘third class journalist’ depending on the parameters one employs to evaluate their journalistic work, by establishing a link between the perceived quality of their professional work and their deaths, are we attempting to justify their murders. 

The discourse the aforementioned statement led to is neither about Dr. Herath, nor about how we as a country gauge the professional work of journalists. It is all about the value we assign to a person’s life; because, at the end of the day, irrespective of one’s profession or professional work, we cannot rule out the possibility of any person becoming a victim of extrajudicial executions, or harassments. 

Having different opinions is a natural trait; tending to believe one’s own opinion is better and/or more accurate than another’s is also natural. However, believing that a person deserves a certain form of extrajudicial treatment as a result of their professional work, or due to the mere fact that they hold different opinions, is largely triggered by the societal and political cultures Sri Lanka has upheld without questioning or countering for a long time. 

Media freedom was a hot topic in the past few weeks, and it was also reported that several plans are afoot to curb fake and misleading news. Taking stringent measures to ensure the standards of the field is the need of the hour; however, that should not result in oppressing dissenting and free voices. 

However, this responsibility lies not only with the rulers and the authorities, but also the public. They have to understand that the freedom of speech and the right to not be unfairly punished for their actions in whatever capacity is not just a right of journalists. It is everyone’s right. When we justify it, we are essentially accepting that the violation of our rights too is justified.