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Swept Under the Rug: Why the United States Must Usher in a New Era of Accountability for Press Freedom

Photo: Glass window with words Freedom of the Press

In late 2019, presidential candidate Joe Biden was asked whether he, as president, would hold Saudi leaders accountable for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. President Biden assertively responded that “Khashoggi was, in fact, murdered and dismembered, and I believe on the order of the crown prince. And I would make it very clear we were not going to, in fact, sell more weapons to them, we were going to, in fact, make them pay the price and make them the pariah that they are.”

In his first major foreign policy speech following the inauguration, President Biden proclaimed that “a free press is essential to the health of democracy.” No less than two weeks later, the Biden administration announced that they would not punish Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) for the state-sanctioned murder of American journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Promises to stand for a free press are empty and hypocritical if the United States fails to protect journalists from physical and rhetorical attacks. In American-allied states, journalists continue to face unrelenting attacks, which constitute matters of national and international security. The Biden Administration must take swift steps to treat them as such. By working multilaterally with allies and developing new intragovernmental resources and policies, the United States can truly advocate for the safety of journalists and promote a free, fair, and independent press.

On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based journalist and noted critic of the Saudi government, was killed in Saudi Arabia’s Istanbul consulate under direct orders from MBS. For decades, Khashoggi served as an advisor to the Saudi royal family but grew disillusioned with the rise of MBS as Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler. In 2017, Khashoggi moved to the United States and began to write for the Washington Post. As a columnist, Khashoggi was openly critical of MBS and the Saudi government, noting that he feared retribution from his home country for his writing. On a trip to Turkey, Khashoggi visited the Saudi consulate to obtain divorce papers. While inside, a 15-man hit squad seized Khashoggi and murdered him on direct orders from MBS.

Unfortunately, the case of Jamal Khashoggi is not an exception–– it is part of a larger trend. Across the world, journalists in American client states continue to face unprecedented, relentless attacks without accountability. In Mexico, President Lopez-Obrador vowed to fight violence and corruption, providing hope to many that the incessant attacks on journalists would come to an end. However, in a country accounting for one-third of journalist murders, Lopez-Obrador has not only unleashed unrelenting attacks on independent journalists; he has also cut funds for investigations against perpetrators of violence and weakened protections for journalists.

In India, the constitutionally-protected free press is constantly undermined by outdated sedition laws. Legal standards like defamation are exploited to punish journalists who publish stories critical of pro-government narratives. In the past ten years, 154 Indian journalists have been arrested or faced government hostility, and 40 percent of those arrests occurred in 2020 alone. When Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region, was stripped of its statehood, Indian journalists feared the ramifications of reporting the full story. “We didn’t do justice to the big story,” lamented Rajdeep Sardesai, one of India’s leading journalists. “We should have gone out there and reported the situation from the ground aggressively and independently.”

“When the press is silenced, corruption, violence, inequalities, and abuses of power can escape unnoticed,says Reporters Without Borders Secretary-General Christophe Deloire. Mexico and India are long-time allies to the United States, but violence against journalists in Mexico and legal action against journalists in India produces a chilling effect on reporters’ willingness to pursue truth and hold governments responsible for wrongdoing. It is not convenient to hold our international partners accountable, but failing to do so sets a dangerous precedent. If the United States allows transgressions against journalists to be swept under the rug, the United States not only equivocates its values–– it sends the message to the world that those who persecute journalists will not face repercussions. For exactly this reason, President Biden’s inaction in holding MBS accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi endangers journalists everywhere. If America really is “back,” as the President likes to say, our actions internationally must support our democratic rhetoric.

According to the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, “there clearly [has been] a Trump effect, a very negative one,” on global press freedom. “Clearly the signature issue over the past four years now has been the way in which this particular president [Trump] addresses the media: the way he denigrates the media, denigrates freedom of expression,” Kaye added. Donald Trump left a lasting legacy that severely damaged our institutions of press freedom. To rebuild this trust, direct government attacks on the legitimacy of journalists cannot continue into this administration. A free, independent press is vital to democracy. Journalists ensure that government officials in the United States and across the world are held accountable to their people. Absent of this, our democracy is seriously threatened. If our domestic institutions do not protect the press in their effort to bring true, independent reporting to the public, the United States’ claims of global leadership are severely damaged.

Just this summer, 70 reporters were arrested across the country at protests following the murder of George Floyd. Most arrests were on “failure to disperse” charges, despite the fact that journalists are exempt from dispersal orders. The United States Constitution enshrines freedom of the press as one of our most sacred rights in the First Amendment, but the United States has strayed so far from this ideal ––  both domestically and internationally.

To combat weakened press freedom, Congress must pass the Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act and the Global Press Freedom Act, which would strengthen the United States’ ability to hold its allies accountable for violence or persecution of journalists and “institutionalize America’s commitment to advancing press freedom abroad.” In US foreign policy, accountability for unwarranted violence must be non-negotiable. The lack of accountability in the case of MBS can never happen again. The current administration and Congress should take immediate action to enshrine press protections domestically and internationally into the corpus of US law. 

Democracy is conditional on the freedom to oppose. No institution is more effective at informing the public and holding those in power accountable than a free, fair, and independent press. The United States can tread a new path as a global leader that works to restore faith in journalism and protect the safety of journalists. The era of amnesty for direct violence and persecution of journalists must end with MBS. Now is the time to change. Now is the time for the US to show the world that it will finally act on the values it claims to uphold. 

Photo: Image via Flickr (F Delventhal)