Joel Simon is executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Journalists over the past two decades have encountered some terrible fates. American reporters Daniel Pearl, James Foley and Steven Sotloff were abducted and beheaded by Islamist terrorists. Investigative reporters Anna Politkovskaya from Russia, Javier Valdez from Mexico and Daphne Caruana Galizia from Malta were all victims of targeted assassination.
But if what is alleged about the disappearance on Oct. 2 of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is true — that he was lured into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, then murdered and dismembered by a team dispatched by the Saudi royal court — it would be in a category of depravity all its own.
What makes Khashoggi’s alleged murder so chilling is its sheer brazenness.
There is much we don’t know. Even if the intent was merely to abduct Khashoggi and not to kill him, how is it possible that Saudi Arabia — a vital U.S. ally that claims to be a responsible actor on the global stage — could consider such an action? Perhaps the reason is that those who use violence and repression to censor the media rarely face significant consequences.
Maybe this is also why so many journalists are being imprisoned and murdered. A record 262 journalists were jailed around the world at the end of last year, according to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the organization I lead. As the war in Syria has ebbed, the total number of journalists killed annually has come down from the low-to-mid 70s, but the number of murdered journalists has risen dramatically this year, to 27; there were 19 such deaths in all of 2016, and 18 last year. The suspects in the killings include criminal groups, terrorist organizations and governments. In about 90 percent of these cases, the perpetrators went unpunished.
Powerful forces around the world recognize the threat posed by independent information and are determined to control it. In areas of Mexico dominated by drug cartels, critical reporting is all but impossible. The Islamic State systematically hunted down and killed anyone who defied its blanket censorship. Governments, including those in Egypt and China, fear popular demonstrations and so suppress reporting on corruption and malfeasance that could bring people into the streets.
The crackdown is part of a broader global trend as Russia, North Korea and other authoritarian regimes have carried out extraterritorial attacks on their critics and faced only modest rebuke from the international community.
Meanwhile, a legitimate concern with the spread of disinformation and misinformation online is empowering the censors, including governments putting pressure on Internet companies to remove critical content they don’t like.
The crisis in press freedom is a threat to the global order. We live in the information age, yet the people who bring us news and information are being jailed, killed and censored at an unprecedented level. A decent respect for press freedom must be viewed as a guiding principle in international relations, a principle that cannot be sublimated to strategic considerations.
Governments that routinely violate the rights of journalists — either by tolerating violence against the press or perpetrating it themselves — must face significant consequences. That would include Myanmar, also known as Burma, which has sentenced two journalists from Reuters to seven years in prison in reprisal for their reporting on a massacre in which security forces were implicated.
The United States, where respect for press freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment, has a key role to play. Support for press freedom has been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy with strong bipartisan support. Following the bitter vote to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, senators quickly came together to express their shared indignation at Khashoggi’s alleged murder. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence have also spoken out.
But one voice was largely missing until Wednesday. President Trump, who has cultivated a close relationship with the Saudi royal family, was slow to go beyond initially expressing “concern” before finally saying, on Wednesday, that “we cannot let this happen to reporters” and “we’re going to get to the bottom of it.” Better still would be an unequivocal demand that the Saudis come clean about Khashoggi’s disappearance. If anything remotely like what is alleged actually happened to Khashoggi, the president should ensure that it has profound and lasting consequences for the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Of course, Trump has had an antagonistic relationship with the media and has mocked and attacked critical reporters. His regular denunciations of “fake news” are increasingly echoed by authoritarian leaders around the world. But that is all the more reason why speaking directly and forcefully about the Khashoggi disappearance would send a message to the Saudis that certain principles are inviolable. It would also send a message to all those around the world who routinely violate the rights of journalists and think they can get away with it that maybe – just maybe – they will be held to account.