The Heavy Responsibility of the Safety of Journalists

On October 2nd, 2018, Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul.  He entered the building to obtain documents to aid in his upcoming marriage ceremony and never came out.  This matter has been fraught with global outcry and speculation in addition to formal investigations into the killing of Khashoggi.  18 Saudis have been arrested, including a team of 15 operatives, who Saudi officials claimed were sent by General Ahmad Asiri to detain Khashoggi and return him to Saudi Arabia.  The Saudi government changed their initial position of no involvement, to admitting that Khashoggi died inside the consulate due to strangulation after an argument and a fistfight.  On October 31st, Istanbul’s chief prosecutor released a statement saying that Khashoggi had been strangled as soon as he entered the consulate building, and that his body was dismembered and disposed of.  On November 10th, an audio recording from inside the Saudi Consulate that allegedly confirms that Khashoggi was purposely killed was shared by Turkey with Saudi Arabia, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States.

Jamal Khashoggi’s death has been met with global outcry as Turkey has taken a lead on the investigation of the killing.  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that Turkey has strong evidence to prove it was a “premeditated political murder.”  Meanwhile, the alleged murder has created bipartisan fury in the U.S. Congress, shaking the foundation of the American-Saudi relationship with calls for suspension of military sales.  Additionally, the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres stated that the death of a prominent dissident journalist has “deeply troubled” him, with the Director-General of UNESCO adding: “The killing of Jamal Khashoggi reminds us of the need to fight for press freedom, which is essential to democracy. Accountability for these crimes is non-negotiable.”

Journalism is arguably one of the most important professions in the world, with members of the free press consistently reporting on issues of public interest and providing vital information to the public; but it is often one of the most dangerous professions as well.  As journalists attempt to bring information to the public, they fall prey to intimidation and violence from a variety of different groups and actors.  The right of media personnel to work in safety, free from fear of being killed, attacked, abducted, harassed, and arbitrarily detained, is essential to the freedom of the press.  A free press is characterized by vigorous political coverage, guaranteed safety of journalists, and little state intrusion in media.  It holds that communication and expression through the press should have the right to be freely exercised.  Robust journalism allows citizens to expand their knowledge and experience by promoting conversations of public issues, while also holding those in power accountable.

It is in civil society’s best interest to encourage and fiercely protect press freedom, as it provides a source of accountability, an agent for civic participation, and regulatory quality.  More media freedom has been found to contribute to an increase in political knowledge and greater political participation.  Democracies can only succeed in curtailing corruption if the press is allowed to report on misdeeds and allow a symmetrical understanding of information.  Additionally, socio-political transparency is greatly affected by press freedom, as corruption leads to inefficiencies in economic distribution and development which impairs poverty alleviation.  According to UNESCO, these is significant evidence that freedom of the press is associated with the development and the poverty level of a country.  A free press can hold governments accountable for their actions which leads to a much more transparent and effective coordination of public affairs, while also creating a favorable environment for business.  Journalists act as a link between individuals and governments by documenting the needs of the people and defending against instances of acute destitution.  For example, the documentation of health crises in numerous developing countries has led to an increase in health personnel to improve the situation.  Press freedom has even been associated with higher literacy rates in Africa.  Former President of the World Bank Group, James Wolfensohn, has contended, “To reduce poverty, we must liberate access to information and improve the quality of information. People with more information are empowered to make better choices […] A free press is not a luxury. It is at the core of equitable development.”

Since 1990, the imprisonment of journalists on charges related to anti-state activities – as well as the executions of media professionals – has been increasing worldwide.  Global press freedom has declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016 and 2017, due to unprecedented threats to journalists and moves by some states to control the media.  On average, a journalist is killed every five days for attempting to bring information into the public sphere.  There has also been significant documentation of incidents of intimidation, such as torching vehicles, death threats, and travel restrictions imposed on journalists.  A 2017 survey conducted by the Council of Europe of 940 journalists throughout 47 Member States found that in the face of intimidation by mostly state actors, 15% of journalists abandoned covering critical stories while 23% chose to withhold information and 31% toned town their coverage.  If nothing is done to stem the unacceptable rising danger for journalists, these unsafe conditions will be continually perpetuated with deeply negative consequences for both media personnel and the freedom of expression.

With 77 journalists and media workers being killed worldwide this year, and 90% of these crimes going unpunished, there needs to be extensive change applied to how we safeguard journalists, punish the perpetrators of crimes, and promote press freedom.  It is imperative that relationships between law enforcement agencies and journalists are improved through training of security forces on freedom of expression.  In Latin America, 5,500 justice system workers were trained on international standards on freedom of expression and the safety of journalists through online courses.  A similar program should be utilized throughout the world to not only safeguard journalists, but also fight impunity for crimes against media professionals.  This should be complimented with a network of safety officers within media companies.  The media industry must also work to establish general safety provisions for journalists, including safety training courses, health care, life insurance, and adequate payment for free-lance and full-time employees.  We must encourage the development of accessible and real-time emergency response mechanisms for media professionals working in the field.  Promoting the safety of journalists and fighting impunity must also not be constrained to after-the-fact action, as we must require prevention mechanisms to address the root causes: the existence of laws that curtail freedom of expression must be addressed by the international community.

The global community should harness the outrage displayed after Jamal Khashoggi’s death to move to protect journalists, and safeguard and promote the freedom of the press.  Khashoggi himself was a proponent of press freedom and in a posthumously released article, he expressed his belief that ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.  There should be significant improvements in international law governing the safety of journalists and freedom of information.  It is imperative that international regulations promoting a free press are reinforced and reemphasized.  The development of support for journalistic infrastructure must be greatly encouraged with media professionals not only receiving support and training in order to report but also to create communities and networks to aid journalists in unsafe conditions.  Additionally, in order to end the cycle of violence against journalists, there must be drastic judicial improvements in cases of crimes against journalists to curtail the vast amount of impunity.  State-run media, intimidation of journalists, and harmful acts committed against media personnel needs to be strongly condemned in order for an effective, strong, and helpful transnational media to arise to inform citizens about global events and provide a platform for all voices.  It is imperative to the progress of civil society that we push for the same openness and transparency in the media that brave journalists, like Jamal Khashoggi, have struggled for.

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