“There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media,” observed Jamal Khashoggi, in what would turn out to be his final column for The Washington Post. “But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet. They have also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications.”
Khashoggi, the US-based journalist whose alleged murder in Istanbul by a Saudi Arabian death squad has shocked the world, warned of the dire consequences the result when “a state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.”
The globally renowned journalist was writing about the circumstances in his homeland, and in other Arab states. But he could have been writing about much of the world, where freedom of expression, and the democratic promises that extend from it, are under murderous assault. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calculates that 57 journalists who were employed by media outlets around the world have been killed so far this year—including four editors and writers who died in a targeted shooting attack on a Maryland newspaper office in June. The global toll also included 10 citizen journalists, along with four media assistants. Additionally, 167 journalists, 150 citizen journalists, and 19 media assistants have been imprisoned—including 28 Saudi Arabians.
These statistics are the stark evidence of an international crisis. “Political control of the media, subjugation of news and information to private interests, the growing influence of corporate actors who escape democratic control, online mass disinformation and the undermining of quality journalism—such are the dangers that threaten journalistic freedom, in addition to the direct threats to journalists themselves. Some of these dangers are unfortunately already familiar but other, newer, ones force us to devise new democratic guarantees—because democracy’s survival is at stake, because democracy cannot survive without an informed, open and dynamic public debate,” warn the leaders of a new Information and Democracy Commission, which has been established by RSF to address “the crisis of trust in democracies and the growing influence of despotic regimes [that] pose a major threat to freedoms, civil harmony and peace.”
The group has a watchword for our times: “Don’t wait to be deprived of news before defending it!”
Americans must demand that this become the official policy of the United States, a country that enshrines at the opening of its Bill of Rights a commitment to freedom of the press that has historically inspired the world.
That demand, from citizens and their Congress, from conservatives and liberals, from Republicans and Democrats and independents, should be directed at the Trump administration. And it must be unequivocal. The commitment of the United States to press freedom, globally and domestically, needs to be expressed in words and deeds.
To that end, the United States must:
- Send a clear signal that the defense of journalism and democracy will not take a back seat to business arrangements. President Trump’s casual response to reports of Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder has been horrific. When asked this week about prospects for holding Saudi Arabia to account if, as is now widely alleged, the nation engaged in a cross-border murder plot that targeted an American-based journalist, Trump proposed a pecuniary response. “If you look at Saudi Arabia, they’re an ally and they’re a purchaser of military equipment among other things,” Trump said, “When I went there, they committed to purchase $450 billion worth of things, and $110 billion worth of military. Those are the biggest orders in the history of this country, probably the history of the world.” The message of the United States to the world cannot be that it values arms sales over accountability for the murder of a writer for one of this country’s great newspapers. Anything less than a halt to arms sales to the Saudis—which should have been implemented months ago in response to the Saudi-managed humanitarian crisis in Yemen—is unacceptable. This halt ought to be immediate; as it would signal the seriousness with which the United States takes credible allegations of so heinous an act as the killing of Khashoggi. California Congressman Ro Khanna has argued for more than a year that “I don’t think the Saudis’ human rights record or their record in military conflicts are consistent with our values.” He is right. And, now, more than ever, Khanna’s wise counsel should be followed.
- Realign with the world community on behalf of press freedom. The United Nations has sent far clearer signals than the United States about the need to get to get the full truth about Khashoggi’s killing. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet has repeatedly and aggressively called for a “prompt, thorough, effective, impartial and transparent” investigation. Rupert Colville, the spokesman for the UN’s human-rights office, announced that “Anyone responsible should be held accountable, and that means anyone who committed a crime or who was involved in the planning of the crime or executing it. There should be accountability; if it’s a serious crime, that’s a fundamental principle of law; national law and international law.” Compare those words with the vapid comments, and actions, of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after his obsequious meeting with the Saudis. Pompeo and Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley have overseen the withdrawal of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council. The Trump administration has also announced plans to withdraw the United States from the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)—the UN agency with a specific mandate to promote press freedom. The United States has every right—indeed, a duty, when honest concerns arise—to raise objections regarding the UN’s approach to human-rights issues and UNESCO’s response to freedom-of-information debates. But it also has a duty to get off the sidelines and sustain global campaigning on behalf of journalism and democracy. (Washington should also back calls for a United Nations investigation into the possible extrajudicial execution of Khashoggi.)
- Stop fostering impunity with attacks that picture the free press as an “enemy of the people.” Donald Trump does not merely criticize dissenting journalists in the United States; he dismisses them as “the enemy of the people.” This is a serious domestic concern. As Mark Weinberg, a press aide to former President Ronald Reagan explains, this is “a grave threat to our democracy” with “ominous implications.” “If the President succeeds in his effort to discredit the press, then from whom will the people get the truth? The government?” asks Weinberg. “History is filled with examples of how disastrous that has been. Ask the people in Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, Damascus or Tehran how that is working out for them.” But the global implications are even more ominous. Earlier this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) identified Trump as one of the “world leaders who have gone out of their way to attack the press and undermine the norms that support freedom of the media.” As the committee notes, “While previous US presidents have each criticized the press to some degree, they have also made public commitments to uphold its essential role in democracy, at home and abroad. Trump, by contrast, has consistently undermined domestic news outlets and declined to publicly raise freedom of the press with repressive leaders.” In January, the CPJ observed, “As Trump and other Western powers fail to pressure the world’s most repressive leaders into improving the climate for press freedom, the number of journalists in prison globally is at a record high.”
Mixed signals endanger journalists and press freedom. Donald Trump needs to adopt a new language—or, perhaps, the old language of President Dwight Eisenhower, when he told the world that “a free press and a free society are essentially one.”