As the search continues for what happened to the respected Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi, it is important that all of us take a minute to assess the role and importance of independent journalism that is under severe attack.
In the Middle East, as in the US, individuals wishing to express themselves in a professional and independent journalistic way are not guaranteed that right. The culture that has been built over the years rewards journalists who toe the line of the ruling powers and punish those courageous individuals, like Jamal Khashoggi, who dare to speak truth to power.
Politicians and those in power respond in different ways. They often attempt to besmirch the reputation of independent journalists. We are called anything from traitors to paid agents, of whatever is the trending oppositional theme or person, or simply as is being stated by the president of the US and the many dictators around the world, authors of fake news.
We are not.
Our job, our profession and our conscious attest to the fact that all we are trying to do is speak the truth and expose the corrupt.
Dictators do not respect such high values. They prefer to claim that those, indeed, paid by them, directly or indirectly, are the only true journalists, while everyone else is the enemy of the state. Laws and regulations are created to protect the powerful, whether it is governments or business, from independent journalists. An unwritten law also exists to punish those who do not follow the dictates of the rulers and conversely to reward those who praise the ruler and attack his detractors. Something needs to change and everyone who is silent is responsible for the perpetuation of the status quo.
This is not to say that individuals and organisations have been quite all along. Organisations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, International Press Institute, which I am part of, Reporters Without Borders and many others have been actively speaking out.
But in light of the tsunami of hate speech against independent journalists and journalism, our efforts are barely making a difference. Countries which are allies of the US and Western countries have been brutal in dealing with journalists without paying a political price for it. In recent months and years we have seen two Reuters journalists get arrested and imprisoned for seven years in Myanmar, a country whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, once received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her fight for non-violence and human rights. In Egypt, Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein has been held in prison for two years without a trial. In Turkey, one of the world’s worst countries in terms of imprisoning journalists, members of the press have been imprisoned, held for long periods of time and accused the flimsiest of charges. In the United Arab Emirates,
Tayseer Najjar, a Jordanian journalist is in jail for three years and has, yet, to pay a huge $136,000 fine for a post he shared on social media, according to Human Rights Watch. He might not be released this coming December because his family cannot raise the huge fine.
The list goes on and on and yet rarely do countries which pride themselves in the defence of the right of freedom of expression take any effective action.
Jamal Khashoggi was never a rebel or an agent provocateur. He has always been a Saudi patriot and supportive of the ruling monarchy, who had a disagreement with the way things are run in his country. He was the editor in chief of Al Watan daily in 2003, a pro-monarchy Saudi paper.
If we are serious about our journalistic profession and if we are serious about the need to protect independent journalism, we have to unite in speaking out about all violations, whether domestic or international. What affects any of us affects all of us.
This struggle is not, and should not, be limited to journalists and media activists. When media fail, the entire society fails and when independent journalism is not allowed the freedom to work, then the entire country/nation will pay a price whether in the short term or the long term.
While the search for Jamal Khashoggi continues, we should take time to consider our individual and collective role in protecting and preserving independent journalism. The fate of our own societies as open and accountable ones is being tested and how we respond will go a long way in determining our own future.