Restrictions, imprisonments, Attacks, and killings of journalists the world over have continued for years for a simple reason. Impunity. Political leaders, government officials, drug lords, and corrupt powerful families have made sure that attacks on courageous journalists produce the desired results. Their goal is to intimidate journalists and more importantly, others send a message to others to avoid continuing in the efforts to expose wrongdoing.
The issue of impunity has been so important in international press freedom efforts that the United Nations has agreed to set aside a day in the annual calendar for impunity to journalists. When November 2 was declared as International Day to end impunity for crimes against journalists UN Secretary-general António Guterres explained the importance of acting against those in power trying to silence the exposure of the truth. “If we do not protect journalists, our ability to remain informed and make evidence-based decisions is severely hampered. When journalists cannot do their jobs in safety, we lose an important defense against the pandemic of misinformation and disinformation that has spread online.”
When Jamal Khashoggi—a Saudi dissident, a columnist for The Washington Post, former editor of Al-Watan, and former general manager and editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel—was assassinated on 2 October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey few of us had any doubt as to who ordered his killing. It has taken a change of administration in Washington for this simple fact to become known, yet despite that, it seems unlikely that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia will be held accountable. And as Fred Hiatt editor of the oped pages at the Washington Post told Jake Trapper of CNN, the body of the late journalist who was last seen entering the sovereign property of the Saudi government has yet to be returned to his family to be given a proper burial. Saudi Arabia is joining Israel, and others in the ugly act of holding the bodies of their opponents as means of hiding facts, collective punishment, revenge, and possible political blackmail.
The Biden Administration has correctly elevated the issue of human rights in its foreign policy agenda. But such a decision carries with it responsibilities including making the tough decisions as promised to hold those responsible for the killing of a well-respected journalist to account.
Human rights advocacy has often run into a wall when it comes to bilateral interests. Successive US administrations have done that when it comes to holding countries like China, Brazil, UAE, Myanmar, and Israel accountable. But if Joe Biden wants to be seen as being different from his republican predecessor on this important issue, he has no choice but to deliver on his electoral promise. It is not enough for Biden to say he pledges ‘strong and transparent’ US-Saudi relations and then excludes the only person who made the decision to kill our colleague from punishment.
For journalists working in the troubling Middle East, this is not a simple matter nor is it a luxury. If the leader of the most powerful country in the world is not willing or able to hold the killer of a journalist working for an American publication to account what hope does an Arab local journalist, a radio host or a tv investigative reporter have in being able to speak truth to power without worrying about the possibility of the powerful shutting us down.
International human rights and press freedom organizations issue annual reports on the most dangerous countries for journalists and list leaders who are the enemies of a free press. Exposing the powerful is aimed at shedding the light and providing proof of the role or the collusion of the powerful in silencing honest journalists. This effort is useless if human rights defenders from a country that gave the world the First Amendment are not willing to follow up on this information. If democracy dies in darkness as Jamal Khashoggi’s last employer reminds us every day, then impunity certainly disappears when leaders are allowed to get away with murder. The time is right for the right person in Washington today to send a powerful message to all and especially leaders in our region that restraining, imprisoning, attacking, and killing journalists for the simple act of shedding a light on the truth will not be tolerated. Nothing will convince people in the Middle East that there is a new and different resident in the White House more than acting on this simple but powerful truth.
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