Khashoggi disappearance places spotlight on media freedom in Middle East

Mia Swart

The world is still reeling from the news of the disappearance and, possibly, murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabia. His disappearance is atrocious beyond what words can describe. 

The fact that Saudi Arabia, because of its vast wealth and the influence of those who benefit from such wealth, might emerge with impunity should be disturbing to all who believe in human rights. 

But at its core the atrocity itself is about unwanted words and unwanted views. Khashoggi was one of the few truly critical Saudi Arabian journalists. A few days before his disappearance he appeared on Al Jazeera and stated that Saudi Arabia will never be a democracy under the current crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and that there was currently no space for debate in Saudi Arabia since journalists and intellectuals are jailed for expressing their views. All indications are that he has was murdered after this.

Khashoggi’s fate highlights the vulnerable state of journalists and media freedom in the Middle East. Because freedom of expression is a litmus test for the health of a democracy, the dire state of media freedom says much about the state of democracy worldwide. 

In a region such as the Middle East which does not subscribe to Western-style democracy, complete disregard for media freedom violates political, religious and social principles on the protection of life and dignity. 

The Middle East is the most dangerous region in the world for journalists. According to Reporters Without Borders the Middle East is also the most difficult region to work in as a journalist. Whereas, in light of a growing climate of intolerance, the world has generally become an unsafer place for journalists Egypt, for example, has imprisoned a record number of journalists; news outlets have been banned; and both traditional and self-censorship are widely practiced in the country and beyond. It is not surprising that in the Khashoggi matter, Egypt has rushed to the defence of Saudi Arabia. 

Turkey’s record of press freedom is particularly grim. In 2017 dozens of journalists were put on trial in Turkey for simply doing their jobs. The persecuted journalists include some of the best known and more reputable journalists. Many of the journalists were wrongly accused of having links to terrorist groups. In total, 160 journalists have been detained under President Tayyip Erdogan since the failed coup attempt against him. This is a clear sign that Turkey is descending into dictatorship. 

During the recent January 2018 protests, outlets also faced indirect repression through financial pressures and state influence over advertising networks. States also attempt to restrain journalists and activists through increased surveillance, such as in Morocco.

One of the reasons that media oppression exists is that elites, especially after the Arab Spring, have realised how media threatens their authoritarian rule. Oppressive regimes challenge the media through various propaganda mechanisms, and this can be an efficient way to thwart transparency and critical reporting.

Not only journalists, but media outlets themselves are now under existential threat. It is not a big leap from showing disrespect for journalists to showing disrespect for the existence of media outlets.

There are some cases of successful lobbying efforts to free journalists, or to ensure they have access to a press card, but these are few and far between. One prominent example is the "Journalism Is Not A Crime" campaign launched by Al Jazeera and supported by other media outlets. 

Al Jazeera launched campaigns of this kind as a response to the imprisonment of its own journalists in countries such as Egypt as well as journalists worldwide facing silencing and persecution. 

This is why a legal framework that protects journalists is essential and more transparency about media ownership is necessary to curb the monopoly of certain elites. Finally, better business models with diverse arrays of funding, outside of the state, and a larger number of shareholders, also represents a significant step to curb the elite and state control over media.

Another strategy to ensure media freedoms are protected is to promote media solidarity campaigns, where media outlets work together. An example of such solidarity is when Al Jazeera was experiencing problems with coverage in Egypt, and a CNN correspondent did a report for Al Jazeera. 

Many journalists and media companies indicated that it would not attend the event a major Saudi investment conference in protest against the treatment of Khashoggi. Whereas it is necessary to take a position against Saudi influence, what is needed is much more than withdrawing from events of this kind. 

A probe into the disappearance of Khashoggi is currently underway. The international community, including Arab states, should also probe the state of media freedom in the Middle East. States and media networks should work together to develop international standards and implementation mechanisms to meaningfully protect journalists brave enough to speak truth to power. 

- Mia Swart is research director of the HSRC.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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