Opinion 4 years after Khashoggi’s murder, assaults on press freedom are getting worse

A person holds a banner of Jamal Khashoggi during a symbolic funeral prayer for the slain Saudi journalist in 2018. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)
A person holds a banner of Jamal Khashoggi during a symbolic funeral prayer for the slain Saudi journalist in 2018. (Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images)

On the fourth anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, we should demand accountability from Saudi Arabia, louder than ever. But we should also denounce, as Khashoggi would have, the assaults against press freedom in so many other countries that continue unabated — and often go unremarked.

Khashoggi’s last column, received by The Post the day after he went missing, was about the need for “free expression,” not just in Saudi Arabia but everywhere that authorities try to suppress and intimidate journalists. He called for “a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events.” How right he was. This is a global problem, and it’s getting worse.

Read this piece in Arabic.

After Khashoggi’s killing, many governments tried to pretend they were friends of the press by denouncing the Saudis who murdered him. They wrapped themselves in the cloak of his martyrdom. But these leaders should be accountable for their countries’ crimes against the media, too — just as we demand justice from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who authorized the operation that led to Khashoggi’s death.

The global assault on journalists is a pervasive fact of modern life. According to data compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,455 journalists have been killed around the world since 1992; 1,979 have been imprisoned; 69 have gone missing. Even as they attack reporters, many of these countries profess support for United Nations norms and offer pledges of human rights.

Read Jamal Khashoggi's columns for The Washington Post

High on the list of press hypocrites, alas, is Turkey — the nation where Khashoggi was killed. Turkey made a show of prosecuting the murder, including welcoming The Post’s owner, Jeff Bezos, to Istanbul in 2019 to mark the first anniversary of Khashoggi’s slaying. Turkish prosecutors were the stars of documentaries about the case. But Turkey dropped the prosecution this year when it became politically inconvenient after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to mend fences with MBS, as the Saudi leader is known.

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Turkey was an especially unlikely defender of press freedom anyway, given its abysmal record at home. Since 1992, according to the CPJ statistics, 378 journalists in Turkey have been killed or imprisoned or have gone missing.

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Opinions coverage of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder
Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and Post contributing columnist since 2017, was killed in Istanbul at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in 2018. According to a U.S. intelligence assessment, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill him.
Fred Hiatt, The Post’s editorial page editor at the time, called it “a monstrous and unfathomable act.” He wrote a column titled “Why bring a bonesaw to a kidnapping, Your Highness?
Khashoggi’s columns for The Post described Saudi Arabia under Mohammed bin Salman, calling it “unbearable” and comparing him to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Biden, after vowing on the campaign trail to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah,” visited the country in July 2022. Biden defended the trip in a guest opinion for The Post. Washington Post Publisher Fred Ryan wrote that Biden’s trip showed American values are negotiable.
Biden greeted Mohammed bin Salman with a fist bump, which columnist Karen Attiah called “a crass betrayal.” Attiah edited Khashoggi’s columns for The Post.

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Iran is another country that ruthlessly suppresses journalists and gets away with it. Of the 170 journalists that have been killed or imprisoned or have gone missing in Iran since 1992, CPJ reports, 112 were jailed for supposed “anti-state” comments and 13 were imprisoned for alleged “religious insults.” The recent death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after she was arrested for allegedly violating rules mandating headscarves has triggered nationwide protests. Iran’s response as it tried to beat demonstrators into submission: Turn off the internet and suppress public discussion.

Iran is one of scores of countries where telling the truth can get a journalist thrown in jail. At The Post, we remember the outrageous imprisonment for 544 days of our colleague Jason Rezaian. He’s now a leading voice in the campaign for press freedom everywhere.

The global anger at MBS for the Khashoggi killing has been inspiring, but in focusing on him, we shouldn’t overlook all the other countries that scorn freedom of the press. The roll of shame includes China, where 229 journalists have been killed or imprisoned or have gone missing since 1992; Ethiopia, with 134 such attacks; Egypt, with 112, Russia, with 97; Mexico, with 85, according to CPJ’s count.

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Press freedom is indivisible. It’s a basic human right. U.S. journalists have a stake in the safety of their colleagues in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China because we all live in the same world of information. News and commentary should move as freely about the planet as air and water. That’s what Khashoggi came to believe; it’s what he died for.

Khashoggi’s writing reminds us that truth-telling has an impact, even when it seems like a lost cause. When Khashoggi dared to speak out as a Post contributor about a country that historically has suppressed journalists, he became a powerful voice. When he kept telling the truth, even when threatened back home, he became a hero and ultimately a martyr.

Khashoggi wrote in that last piece that the Arab world was confronting “an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power.” Friends advised him to stop pushing so hard, to compromise with MBS, to accept limits on his own freedom of expression.

But Khashoggi wouldn’t. He walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul four years ago determined to write the truth as he saw it and to hold powerful people accountable for their lies. His death galvanized anger against MBS and the murderous Saudi regime. But Jamal would be the first to tell us that press freedom is a global problem — and that truth-tellers everywhere need our support.

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