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Opinion From ‘pariah’ to ‘move past it’: How Biden set aside press freedom

Participants display placards after unveiling a new street sign for Jamal Khashoggi Way outside the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington on June 15. (Gemunu Amarasinghe/San Francisco Chronicle via AP)

Here is one thing we should all be able to agree on: Journalists deserve protection and freedom, not bonesaws and bullets. On his upcoming trip to the Middle East, will President Biden push our allies to respect press freedom? I’m not holding my breath.

At 1:14 p.m. last Wednesday, the street in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington was symbolically renamed Jamal Khashoggi Way. It was 1:14 p.m. on Oct. 2, 2018, that Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, never to emerge again.

Khashoggi, a Post Global Opinions columnist and permanent U.S. resident, used to give this advice to young writers and activists — that it was better for a writer to stay out of jail, to stay alive and to write. He would much rather have had his name on a column in today’s edition of The Post than on a street sign opposite the embassy of the country he loved. Such was Khashoggi’s belief in the power of the press even in a constrained environment such as Saudi Arabia’s, and that’s why the street name matters. It’s a monument that serves as a permanent, public bloodstain on Saudi Arabia’s reputation — and a testament that here, in the United States, the press can do its vital work.

What about our allies in the Middle East? U.S. officials have confirmed that Biden’s July trip to the region will include stops in Saudi Arabia and Israel. Plans involve a meeting with Saudi officials that will include Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is believed to have authorized the operation that ended in Khashoggi’s killing and dismemberment with the bonesaw brought by a member of the team that ambushed him. Meanwhile, in Israel, new information continues to emerge about last month’s shooting of Palestinian American Shireen Abu Akleh, a veteran journalist working for Al Jazeera. Despite the government’s initially blaming Palestinian gunmen, eyewitness accounts and investigations by CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times and The Post suggest that an Israeli soldier most likely fired the shot that took her life.

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Biden could use this trip to forcefully stand up for press freedom and harsher consequences for attacks on journalists. Doing so would also serve as a clear statement that the U.S. government will demand answers when residents such as Khashoggi and citizens such as Abu Akleh come to harm.

During his presidential campaign, Biden promised he would make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” after Khashoggi’s killing. Now a U.S. official is quoted by CNN saying: “Both sides have decided that for the sake of achieving peace and stability in the Middle East, we need to move past it.” U.S. officials reportedly say they don’t want the U.S.-Saudi relationship to be held “hostage” to Khashoggi’s murder.

The message to those who have fought for accountability for Jamal is clear: Time to get over it.

Abu Akleh’s killing came a year after Israel bombed a Gaza building housing the offices of the Associated Press and 17 other outlets. Israeli forces claimed the building was being used by Hamas but did not provide public evidence of that. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called for an independent investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing, and 57 members of Congress have requested that the State Department and the FBI investigate. So far, Israel and the Palestinian authorities have embarked on separate investigations, and the United States has not intervened.

Already Abu Akleh’s killing has largely faded from the U.S. news cycle. The message here, too, is clear: A Palestinian journalist and U.S. citizen killed? Nothing to see here, folks.

Ultimately, if Biden fails to press Saudi Arabia and Israel for accountability in these deaths, it will send a message to the world that killing Arab journalists and American citizens and residents is okay, as long as (1) you’re a country that helps achieve American geopolitical interests; and (2) you can withstand an international outcry until it fades.

The assumption that peace, stability and security are separate from press freedom and other human rights in the Middle East — and are matters to be balanced against realism — is, at best, a dusty relic of unimaginative policymaking. At worst, the “peace” being advanced is the quiet that comes when Arab voices and journalists are silenced. This is not stability, it is American-enabled repression.

Al Jazeera has vowed to take Abu Akleh’s case to the International Criminal Court. Many of us will continue to keep Khashoggi’s case and memory alive in whatever ways we can. But if Biden fails to call our allies to the carpet on the safety of journalists, it will be a hard blow to the cause of press freedom everywhere.