The gruesome killing of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has provoked global outrage. Let’s also focus on the plight of other reporters — much less visible and politically well-connected than Khashoggi — who are killed, tortured, imprisoned and threatened every day.
The war on free speech was once the preserve of dictators and authoritarians. The hostility against media has now extended to many democracies.
Press freedom around the globe last year declined to its lowest point in 13 years, according to the American-based group Freedom House. For the first time, the US is included as a place where the press is under siege.
Twenty seven journalists have been murdered so far this year, four of them in Europe, once considered a safe place for reporters. Slovakia’s Jan Kuciak and Malta’s Daphne Caruana Galizia, were investigating corruption at the time of their deaths.
The number of journalists jailed worldwide has more than doubled over the last decade, with 262 imprisoned in 2017 compared to 127 jailed in 2007. And while Khashoggi’s murder is particularly brutal, at least 15 other journalists have been arrested or abducted in Saudi Arabia in the last year.
Ironically, Recep Erdogan, the Turkish President, whose investigators are conducting the probe into Khashoggi’s murder, is the world’s largest jailer of journalists, with more than a hundred in prison.
Given the coarse political discourse of our times, the rise in “fake news”, disinformation campaigns and with more politicians echoing US President Donald Trump’s description of the media as “enemies of the people”, the rise in violence against reporters should not surprise.
But it should be condemned — and stopped. Whether it’s bombs sent to prominent Democrats and offices of CNN, the body slamming of a journalist or treason charges against reporters, attacks against the media risk becoming normalised.
This will lead not only to more physical attacks on reporters, but also endanger democracies, help the rise of extremist and polarising politicians and prevent journalists from challenging and questioning those in power.
Brazil’s newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro, is the latest politician to come to power on the back of a successful campaign built at least partly on rhetoric against the conventional media.
Authoritarian officials in Venezuela, Syria, Myanmar, China, Russia and other nations have adopted variations of the “fake news” to discredit a critical press.
In Italy, ten investigative reporters are currently getting round-the-clock police protection because of death threats and because covering a mafia ring or criminal groups can prove fatal.
In Myanmar, Wa Line and Kyaw SoeOo of Reuters are serving seven years on state secret charges linked to their investigation into the killing of Rohingya villagers by state security forces.
In the Philippines, reporters critical of President Rodrigo Duterte’s strong-arm tactics against drug barons, face violence and death threats.
Press freedom in Pakistan is under assault as never before. In fact, Asia remains the most unsafe region in the world for media, with journalists hounded in real life and trolled on social media by governments, corrupt businesses and terror groups.
Everywhere, murders of journalists remain unsolved and unpunished. Most often it is local journalists rather than foreign correspondents who are murdered either by criminals, armed groups and terrorists, but also by or on behalf of politicians or parts of the state.
Given its focus on human rights, democracy and the rule of law — and with few other governments and organisations ready to take up the cause — the EU must put the treatment of journalists much higher on its development, foreign and security policy agenda.
It is important that press freedom or the lack of it is part of the EU’s regular evaluation of countries’ human rights performance and European interaction with foreign governments. Regimes with an anti-press agenda should be named and shamed.
EU delegations abroad must pay as much attention to press freedom and the plight of journalists as they do to other breaches of human rights.
They must also provide legal help and safety to reporters who are in danger and wrongly accused. The European Parliament must make the protection of journalists, both at home and abroad, a priority.
Most importantly, with elections to the European Parliament around the corner, European politicians must be called to order and warned to stop harassing and inciting hatred against the press.
Given its geopolitical implications, Khashoggi’s murder will continue to grab the headlines. Those denouncing the killing should be equally adamant about the hundreds of other journalists who are under threat for being good at their job.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.
Published in Dawn, November 2nd, 2018