By Olivia Magnanini
BOLOGNA, Italy — According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) global data, in 2017, 18 journalists were murdered (motive confirmed) and another 262 were imprisoned. The imprisonment numbers are representative of a disturbing upward trend since 2000, with 2017 being the year with the highest number ever recorded for CPJ.
The ongoing crisis of journalistic freedom was thrown into the spotlight in recent weeks, with the notable disappearance and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is indicative of the increasing boldness with which authoritarian governments are silencing journalists.
While public outcry from the global community has spawned an investigation into the Khashoggi killing, so far there have been few diplomatic consequences. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), a notable ally, puts the U.S. at a pivotal juncture in its historical dynamic with Saudi Arabia, giving the U.S. a chance to stand up to authoritarian bullies who choose to silence their critics.
The disturbing story of Jamal Khashoggi, a confidant-turned-critic of the Saudi royal family, who was living in Turkey as a reporter, shows the increasingly bold measures authoritarian governments are taking to silence their critics. The circumstances surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance and death inside the embassy have grown murkier since he was first reported missing over two weeks ago.
The Saudi government has repeatedly rejected claims of any involvement, only to issue a statement in the middle of the night this past weekend stating that Khashoggi died “in a brawl.” With more information linking Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the murder, growing pressure from world leaders, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin pulling out of a large investment conference in Riyadh last week, it seems that MBS needed to act decisively to change the narrative — arresting 18 men in connection with the killing and cleaning house of certain aides in his administration. Still, Washington should not see this as enough to let the Saudis off the hook.
In a testament to Riyadh’s power in the region, countries such as Egypt, UAE, Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain have all issued statements in solidarity with MBS. But, while some voices remain silent, President Trump should forcefully and unequivocally condemn the regime’s involvement.
The United States, where core values of free speech and freedom of the press are enshrined in the constitution, needs to set an example by speaking out against censorship of the press. If Trump continues to support the Saudi prince － even tepidly － amidst more evidence surfacing regarding MBS’ direct involvement in ordering the killing, it will set a dangerous precedent and present another opportunity where the president acts out of personal allegiance to those who support him — even when they commit crimes.
There is a sense of deep irony, of course, that this is happening in Erdoğan’s Turkey, where the highest number of journalists worldwide were imprisoned last year, and that it’s President Trump who needs to take a strong stand against the oppression of journalists. After all, this is a president who continuously disparages those who disagree with him, calling the press “the enemy of the people.” Trump’s previous comments have generated deep suspicion of the press and created an environment of distrust and tension in America. The murder of Khashoggi should give him a moment of reflection about the dangers of deriding journalists, and present an opportunity to insist on protection of free thought and speech.
Khashoggi’s murder represents the disturbing and widening gap between political discourse and free press in Saudi Arabia and around the world.
While countries like Saudi Arabia have recently attempted to appear more “liberal,” many seem to be reverting to authoritarian behavior — led by strongmen who would like to silence any dissenting views. If these governments are found to be culpable, it’s up to the international community to enforce diplomatic and economic sanctions to hold them accountable.
Ironically for Trump, the opportunity to defend a free press and condemn a state-sanctioned killing of a journalist could be one of the most pivotal moments for his presidency.
Olivia Magnanini is a SAIS MA ‘20 student from the U.S. studying Latin America and American Foreign Policy.