For two months, the brutal murder of the US-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, and its geopolitical repercussions, has dominated headlines worldwide. But his case is far from an anomaly. In fact, according to the International Press Institute, violence against journalists and impunity for the perpetrators are “two of the biggest threats to media freedom in our world today.”
Governments often use both carrots and sticks to keep journalists in line. They might reward journalists for toeing the official line, using financial or other kinds of bribes. Those who refuse to be bought, however, may suffer the loss of basic rights (such as passport renewal), or have their reputations destroyed.
To this end, some autocratic regimes emulate US President Donald Trump, calling journalists “enemies” who disseminate “fake news.” This is a bleak reversal for the United States, a country that has historically set a powerful positive example with its formal and informal mechanisms for protecting freedom of the press and its robust culture of investigative journalism.
Imprisonment is another favorite way for autocratic regimes to silence journalists who dare to speak truth to power. In Egypt, Al Jazeera’s Mahmoud Hussein has been detained for two years without trial. In the United Arab Emirates, the Jordanian journalist Tayseer al-Najjar is serving a three-year sentence, which will be prolonged if his family is unable to pay the massive $136,000 fine imposed on him for a post he made on social media. In Turkey, more than 150 journalists have been imprisoned since the failed coup in July 2016, making the country the world’s biggest jailer of journalists.
And then, of course, there are the journalists who are forced to make the ultimate sacrifice in service of the truth. By one count, 73 journalists have been killed so far this year, and in, 12 countries five or more murders of journalists went unresolved in 2017. This includes not only violence-plagued countries like Iraq, Somalia, and Syria, but also democracies (and quasi-democracies) like Brazil, India, Mexico, Nigeria, and Russia.
Such countries – many of which are allies of the US and other Western countries – have often faced no political or diplomatic price for their actions. In this sense, Khashoggi’s murder sends a powerful message.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is widely believed to have ordered the killing. Yet journalists and human-rights activists in developing countries that benefit from or depend on financial support from Saudi Arabia are being politely (or not so politely) requested to keep quiet as MBS tours the region in order to restore his image.
In many Arab countries, for example, it is a crime to carry out any action or publish anything that could hurt the reputation of “a brotherly or friendly country.” So, while Tunisian human-rights activists protested MBS’s recent visit, many Arab activists had to refrain, despite strongly opposing the Saudi leader’s actions, in order to avoid imprisonment.
Even some Western countries have failed to take a stand. Trump, for example, has declared that he “stands with” Saudi Arabia, a close US ally, largely in order to protect large arms deals with the Kingdom.
The petition also looks beyond Khashoggi’s case, calling for the enactment of “binding laws that protect journalists, guarantee their right to work in freedom, and punish those who violate this right.”
Given how widespread crimes against journalists are – and how vital their work is to our societies – the petition’s demands deserve the support of all citizens where press freedom is restricted or under threat.
Daoud Kuttab, a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University, is the head of the press freedom committee in the board of the International Press Institute.