The Irish Times view on Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance: journalists under threat

The Saudi writer’s fate is part of a wider international culture of intolerance and hostility to independent and critical journalism in recent years

Journalists the world over are increasingly endangered, like Jamal Khashoggi, by disregard of their freedom to report and investigate. Photograph: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

Journalists the world over are increasingly endangered, like Jamal Khashoggi, by disregard of their freedom to report and investigate. Photograph: Mohammed Al-Shaikh/AFP/Getty Images

 

The disappearance and presumed murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul has brought a perfect storm of criticism and attention on the Saudi Arabian regime for organising this attack on one of its foremost critics.

Despite its unconvincing denials of responsibility major business figures are withdrawing from a forthcoming investment conference there while friendly governments demand explanations and threaten sanctions.

A chilling side of the story is how this absolute monarchy reacts to criticisms of its reformist credentials by brutal repression. Journalists the world over are increasingly endangered, like Khashoggi, by disregard of their freedom to report and investigate.

He was a well-connected regime insider over many years who recently became disenchanted with the policies being followed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 32 year heir apparent to King Salman.

Their plans to modernise and reform the regime have received sympathetic coverage and support from close allies like the United States and Britain and from those locked into Saudi wealth and regional ambitions. The dark side is starkly revealed by this affair.

Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance brings home the importance of independent journalism as a guarantor of public accountability

Thousands of internal critics have been arrested and jailed and many pursued abroad when it became clear the regime has no plans for political reform. Khashoggi posed a particular threat as an insider with an influential voice in the US.

He took issue too with bin Salman’s disastrous foreign policy adventures in Yemen, Syria and against Iran.

Khashoggi’s fate is part of a wider international culture of intolerance and hostility to independent and critical journalism in recent years. Campaigning and advocacy media groups cite much higher figures of murdered journalists, linking it to ruthless governments, drug and gangland bosses and a rising tide of online trolling and death threats.

Protestors hold pictures of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate on Monday in Istanbul. Photograph: Zan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
Protestors hold pictures of missing journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a demonstration in front of the Saudi Arabian consulate on Monday in Istanbul. Photograph: Zan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

Mexico, India, Syria, Turkey, the Philippines and Iraq top the lists. In Europe murders of investigative journalists in Slovakia and Malta put the issue on the political agenda as a real threat to democratic and liberal freedoms.

That illiberal trend has been reinforced by the questioning of those values by President Trump in the US. His portrayal of critical coverage as fake news and characterisation of media covering him as “enemies of the people” feed into a cynical partisanship that narrows public debate and questions truthful journalism.

The same trend is at work on Putin’s Russia and is a growing feature of right-wing populist movements in Europe.

Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance brings home the importance of independent journalism as a guarantor of public accountability. It can serve as a rallying call for those values against those whose power is threatened by them. Most of the journalists murdered in the last year have been trying to do their job, like him, for the public good. That role must be respected and defended.

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