But the administration has another opportunity to advance Khashoggi’s dream of a freer world. The State Department last week announced that it planned a broader policy of imposing a “Khashoggi Ban” to deny U.S. visas to foreign officials who harass journalists and activists abroad. This didn’t get much attention, and it may be just window dressing. But it could be a significant step toward protecting future truth-tellers from torture and death.
The impact of this new policy will extend far beyond Saudi Arabia, a senior State Department official told me Tuesday. Dissidents and freethinking journalists from Russia, China, Egypt, Turkey and a range of other repressive regimes could gain a measure of protection through the new U.S. approach. The challenge will be implementing the visa ban so that it’s effective and transparent.
“I think that it’s potentially a very positive, forward-looking tool to deter transnational repression,” said Mohamed Soltan, an Egyptian human rights activist who worked closely with Khashoggi and heads a group called Freedom Initiative. He said his organization is studying how to submit cases to the State Department for review and action, so that the Khashoggi Ban has real impact.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken described the new policy in a briefing Friday. He said the State Department could “restrict and revoke visas to any individual believed to be involved in extraterritorial activities targeting perceived dissidents or journalists — trying to harass them, surveil them, harm them or their families.” He described the ban as “a new tool to push back against that.”
The senior State Department official provided some additional details. He said the State Department would gather information about harassment of dissidents and journalists from open sources and reporting by U.S. intelligence agencies. And he said that visa bans would apply not just to foreign officials who persecute dissenters, but to their spouses, adult children and parents.
“Any country that would dare engage in these abhorrent acts should know that their officials — and their immediate family members — could be subject to this new policy. We expect that it will have a deterrent effect the world over,” the senior State Department official said. He added that sanctions are already being launched against Russian officials who have targeted dissident Alexei Navalny and his supporters.
This new effort to protect journalists and dissidents abroad strikes directly at the actions that targeted Khashoggi — and continue to afflict many thousands of others. As described in the documentary “The Dissident,” the campaign against Khashoggi included a social media barrage, a travel ban on his son, electronic surveillance that penetrated his contacts’ cellphones and, finally, a plot to lure him from the United States to his death in Istanbul.
Autocratic governments have grown increasingly brazen. A report last month by Freedom House on “transnational repression” cited at least 608 cases of physical repression since 2014, including assassinations, kidnappings, assaults and detentions. The report said that at least 31 nations had used such techniques to harass dissenters who were living abroad in 79 countries. People like Khashoggi may flee repression, but the autocrats have pursued them mercilessly.
The Khashoggi Ban would be a step forward after last week’s messy release of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report on Khashoggi’s murder. Rather than proving that MBS, as the crown prince is known, had ordered the murder, the report simply said he approved an operation to “capture or kill” Khashoggi — leaving an ambiguity that’s still unresolved. What’s more, the identities of three people initially named as “complicit” in the killing were subsequently removed by the ODNI, including one man whose brother is a senior Saudi intelligence official. An ODNI spokesman refused to elaborate.
Khashoggi might be alive today if the U.S. government had penalized foreign governments that harass journalists and dissenters. He was a victim of a world where autocrats and their stooges seemed to have the upper hand, and the United States didn’t speak out in his defense. News organizations and human rights activists should be vigilant to make sure the Biden administration delivers on its new promise to protect the brave men and women who follow Khashoggi’s example.