Standing up for Khashoggi is standing up for safety of journalists globally

By Guy Berger

Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi wasn’t the only journalist killed in 2018. Worldwide, UNESCO recorded the horrific total of 96 other murders for last year. That is: ninety-six lives that are no more, simply because the people involved were doing journalism.

Yet, in this death list, the Khashoggi killing was one of the most brazen. Was it intentionally so, in the sense of sending a clear threat to others – i.e., that speaking out can be fatal? Assessing the case recently was media expert Leon Willems, director of a leading Dutch NGO called Free Press Unlimited.

Willems argued that those responsible for the butchering of Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul knew in advance that they would basically get away with murder.

“Because impunity is the norm, Saudi authorities took the gamble that even if the killing came to light, the consequences would be minor. And they were right…”, wrote Willems.

This chilling assessment has to freeze us in our tracks.

Willems is correct that, worldwide, journalists are murdered with impunity. Nine out of ten cases never see the perpetrators brought to justice, according to UNESCO statistics. In this case, Willems is suggesting a supremely callous calculation about a very particular case of elimination. Is he right about this?

Most targeted journalists aren’t wiped out like Khashoggi. Some are gunned down in drive-by shootings by men who then flee under cover of darkness. Others perish in an area of violent conflict – as targets of terror or as collateral victims of bomb blasts.

Criminals used cellphones to remotely trigger an explosion that blew up Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as she got into her own car in 2017.

But no shadowy or indirect murder awaited Jamal Khashoggi. It was in the diplomatic space of his own country and in broad daylight where he was directly suffocated and then dismembered.

Normally, a consulate is a haven for its nationals. In this case, it was quite literally a slaughter site. This was a premeditated crime, as confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, that meant a journalist lost his life.

Even today, his bone-sawed body parts remain lost.

So, coming up five months later, there is still no grave for Khashoggi. As the UN Rapporteur states: “It is unconscionable that the Saudi Arabia authorities continue to fail to disclose the whereabouts of Mr Khashoggi’s remains, after having admitted that he met his death within their custody in their consular premises.”

Today, while some of the alleged perpetrators are on trial, the complicity of the consulate staff and those who earlier guaranteed Khashoggi safe entry to the premises, has been conveniently forgotten. It is still not clear who gave the orders.

Yet, despite the barbarity of the place and method, in Leon Willems’s view, the Khashoggi atrocity has yet to have serious impact.

Instead, the lesson so far suggests that a chain of officials can commit a truly ghastly murder in government diplomatic offices, deal with a bit of noise from the public – albeit perhaps more than they expected, and then bring some of the direct perpetrators to trial.

Even as regards the case, according to the UN Rapporteur: “… the proceedings to date raise major concerns, including with regard to the lack of public information about the identity of those on trial, the transparency and fairness of the proceedings, and the potential application of the death penalty.”

Meantime, in Leon Willems’ view, it’s back to normality for everyone. Only now, the world is supposed to benefit from having a moderate critic permanently silenced.

For anyone who really respects human rights, and especially for anyone who believes in the importance of journalism, the “business as usual” approach is an abomination. We are seeing the pursuit of profit and political interest being used to justify a lack of action.

A few political leaders rose to the occasion and asked the Saudi leadership to account. Others gave a free pass – citing trade, jobs and investment as overriding reasons. Many more simply kept silent.

If this sounds familiar, let’s recall that many white South Africans and their international backers accepted apartheid’s human rights violations because of the economic benefits accruing from the system. They kept quiet, even though they knew it was wrong. Very few were prepared to make the economic sacrifices that would help to challenge the system.

The global set-up concerning the Khashoggi case is not much different. Business is presented as if it, in itself, is an acceptable rationale for an especially abhorrent murder.

That is an invitation to future perpetrators anywhere: do what you want to do, life will go on.

Except of course, life does not go on for the victims. Nor for their families, such as Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz … who waited in vain outside the consulate for her partner who never returned. Given how egregious this case is, the Khashoggi precedent needs continuous challenge.

We owe this to the wasteland of journalists mown down over the past 10 years. Between 2006 and 2017, of a total of 1010 recorded killings, UNESCO’s Member State provided information on just over half – and their data showed that only 115 cases have been judicially resolved. If the new norm is going to be impunity even in case of such a bare-faced assassination, we probably expect a decline in this pitiful figure of justice for 10 percent of the cases. Yet killers need to know there will be real consequences for “taking out” a journalist.

First, judicial consequences covering the full chain of those commissioning, those committing, and those complicit in the crime. Second, consequences in terms of international image, public opinion, personal reputations and business relations.

This is why it is vital to stand up for justice for every “Jamal” – past, present and future. Every “Jamal” who has been robbed of their innate right to life … simply for doing journalism.

UNESCO’s Director-General, Audrey Azoulay has stated: “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.”

She has also urged the relevant authorities to conduct a thorough investigation into this crime and bring its perpetrators to justice. Later this year, UNESCO will make an official request for information about judicial follow-up, as it does in all unsolved cases of killed journalists.

How and if the Saudi authorities respond will no doubt be watched with great interest. And not least by Leon Willems and his interest in consequences.

Guy Berger writes in his personal capacity.

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Guy Berger

Guy Berger is UNESCO’s director for Freedom of Expression and Media Development, based in Paris. Between 1994 and 2011, he was head of the School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, South Africa. He has been awarded the Nat Nakasa Award for Media Integrity from the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF), and […]

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