Politicians are right to express outrage over Khashoggi's death. But in some cases, their sudden eagerness for justice looks disingenuousby Rebecca Vincent / October 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
The disappearance and now confirmed death of Jamal Khashoggi at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul has put press freedom at the centre of the international agenda—and led to the curious spectacle of one of the world’s greatest jailers of journalists being cast as a protector of the rights of reporters to write and speak freely.
As the official Saudi story of what happened to the Washington Post columnist in the Gulf state’s Istanbul consulate changes almost daily, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised: “We are looking for justice here and this will be revealed in all its naked truth.”
Turkish media workers will be forgiven for any scepticism towards Erdogan’s newfound commitment to the unfettered pursuit of truth, outlined in a meeting of his parliamentary party where he spoke of the special duty to find justice for an internationally renowned journalist such as Khashoggi.
Since the failed coup attempt in July 2016, around 150 media outlets have been shut down in Turkey. Dozens of Turkish journalists are currently behind bars, some serving harshly disproportionate life sentences, while shameful mass trials continue.
Turkey has become the world’s biggest prison for professional journalists, and is now ranked 157th out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.
It’s not just Turkey’s demagogical president who appears disingenuous in his sudden eagerness for justice.
While a White House statement committed the US to “advocate for justice that is timely, transparent, and in accordance with all due process,” the president himself seemed willing to accept the Saudi government’s ever-changing version of events at any particular time.
Trump said on Saturday that claims Khashoggi had died in a fistfight in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul seemed “credible,” while also stating that any sanctions against Saudi Arabia would not include the halting of arms sales. Trump’s language has grown more sceptical, but he has already made it clear he would not risk commercial ties with the Saudis.
The United States may see free expression as a cornerstone of its being, but the entire Trump presidency has been characterised by assault after assault on the very concept of a free critical press, supposedly protected by the first amendment to the constitution—often cited as the ne plus ultra of legal guarantees of free expression.
Just last week, with violence against one journalist dominating the international agenda, Donald Trump glibly praised Montana republican Greg Gianforte for assaulting Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs, saying the assault had helped him win his election campaign in May last year.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, where former cricketer Imran Khan is casting himself as the country’s answer to Trump, reporter Sohail Khan was gunned down on 17 October, just hours after the publication of his report into drug trafficking in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region.
On Saturday, his media colleagues held a march demanding a proper investigation into his murder, and protection for journalists investigating crime and corruption. Experience suggests they may be waiting some time for a response from Khan’s government.
European press freedom
Things aren’t much better in Europe, where we are witnessing an increasing level of violence and threats of violence against journalists. I’ve just returned from a freedom of expression mission to Malta, where journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated last year after her tireless investigative reporting exposing official corruption, including her work on the Panama Papers.
While no one has yet been prosecuted for Caruana Galizia’s murder, the Maltese authorities have found the time and resources to frequently dismantle a makeshift protest memorial to the woman whose investigations into corruption cost her her life.
Three men were arraigned last year on suspicions of involvement in the carrying out of the attack, but there appears to be no real official will to find the masterminds behind Caruana Galizia’s assassination.
Meanwhile, ludicrous posthumous defamation cases against her continue, including suits brought by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, his chief of staff Keith Schembri, and Minister for Tourism Konrad Mizzi. Even while she lies dead in the grave, the country’s top officials continue their attempts to discredit her life’s work.
Caruana Galizia’s son Matthew, himself a journalist who has been shortlisted for this year’s Reporters Without Borders Prize for Impact, faces similar pressures, including a defamation lawsuit brought by Prime Minister Muscat, for his tireless work for justice for his mother.
It’s easy to imagine that the people who planned and commissioned Caruana Galizia’s assassination will never be brought to justice, just like those who ordered the murders of Anna Politkovskaya, Elmar Huseynov, Marie Colvin, James Foley, and countless others.
Getting away with it
Impunity is a huge problem in cases of violence against journalists; in the vast majority of murders of media workers, there are no successful prosecutions.
By and large, people attack journalists, in Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, India, Russia, Malta, and elsewhere because they know they can get away with it.
In the UK, there has still been no conviction for the murder of crime journalist Martin O’Hagan in 2001 by the Loyalist Volunteer Force—a stain on Britain’s free speech record that is rarely discussed.
With murders of journalists now taking place with such bold-faced impunity, it seems profoundly unlikely that the masterminds of these horrific crimes will ever face justice. The result will be a lasting chilling effect on media everywhere; journalists around the world will now certainly think twice about taking on the significant risks of pursuing critical reporting.
These are dire times for journalism and journalists. Even in places where the physical threat to journalists is low, the narrative grows day by day that the media cannot be trusted—an agenda that can’t end well for the media. But functioning societies are dependent on independent media, a point Jamal Khashoggi made eloquently in his final column for the Washington Post.
Journalism is important; if it wasn’t, journalists would not be at risk from the powerful, the corrupt, and the criminal. As our politicians—rightly—express outrage over the death of Jamal Khashoggi, now is a good time to examine their own records and ask “what have you done for press freedom?”
RSF’s 2018 Press Freedom Awards will be presented in London on 8 November.