Murdered with impunity

It’s some 6 weeks since the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist in what, on the basis of the evidence so far, was a state sponsored killing, which took place in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. To date the Saudi ruling elite, in the person of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto head of state, claim to know nothing of the atrocity, but have arrested 18 people who are alleged to have been involved in the operation.

A veteran journalist, Jamal covered major stories including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the rise of Osama Bin Laden for various Saudi news organisations. He was close to the Saudi royal family for decades and had been editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper Al Watan and a media adviser to Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain.

But he fell out of favour and went into self-imposed exile in the United States in September 2017. From there he wrote a monthly column in the Washington Post in which he criticised the policies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, (M.B.S) more especially following the actions of the Saudi security services who arrested scores of prominent businessmen and imprisoned them inside the Ritz-Carlton under the cover of an “anti-corruption” crackdown. In reality it was an operation to frighten off potential rivals. According to Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair on 16 October 2018, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/10/how-jamal-khashoggi-fell-out-with-bin-salman Khashoggi soon began hearing from friends in Saudi Arabia that prisoners were coerced, in some cases tortured, into handing over billions of dollars to the government. “It was tough. Some were insulted. Some were hit. Some claim they were electrocuted,” he said. The purge, which also included intellectuals, media personalities, and moderate clerics, convinced Khashoggi that M.B.S. had promoted himself as a reformer, when, in fact he was a brutal authoritarian. “When the arrests started happening, I flipped. I decided it was time to speak,” he told Sherman.

Shortly after his death, a whispering campaign started against him inside Saudi Arabia that Khashoggi was Muslim Brotherhood supporter, a point also laboured in articles by Saudi sympathisers. In 2014 the organisation was banned in the Saudi kingdom where it is regarded as a terrorist organisation. There does not appear to be any doubt that early in his career he joined the Brotherhood and that his attraction to political Islam later helped him forge a personal relationship with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, himself no friend of critical journalism, where some 90 journalists are in jail. Erdogan’s hyprocrisy is breathtaking, but he is of course playing a wider geo-political game.

It was against this background that the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) recently launched its Campaign against impunity 2018. The IFJ remind us that impunity occurs when threats, attacks and crimes against journalists go unpunished. It results in a high level of fear, intimidation, censorship and self-censorship that undermines press freedom, the public right to know and leaves victims and their relatives powerless.

According to IFJ statistics, at least 75 journalists have lost their lives while carrying out their duties since the beginning of 2018. Today only one out of 10 killings of journalists is resolved. The situation for non-fatal attacks on journalists is even worse. Governments fail in their duty to hunt down the harassers, the attackers, the killers of media workers. Impunity not only endangers journalists, it imperils democracy and compromises hopes for peace and progress. Legal guarantees exist for the protection of journalists as civilians which states are duty bound to enforce under domestic and international law.

The IFJ’s #endimpunity campaign 2018 https://www.ifj.org/actions/ifj-campaigns/campaign-against-impunity-2018.html aims to hold governments and de facto governments accountable for their impunity records and to denounce crimes targeting journalists that remain unpunished. Murder is the highest form of these crimes but all attacks targeting journalists that remain unpunished must be exposed and acted on. According to the IFJ In the past 6 years, more than 600 journalists have been killed and 75 so far in 2018.

 On 1st November I joined a well attended candle-lit vigil held by the NUJ outside the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, in Mayfair, London, on the eve of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. A similar event, organised by the NUJ in Ireland, was held at the Saudi embassy in Dublin.

The next day, one month after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, marked the ‘International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists’, the Safety of Journalists Platform launched a special page, presenting 16 cases of unsolved murders of journalists in the Council of Europe member states, as submitted by the partner organisations, including the European Federation of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists. These cases are listed on the platform as impunity for murders, highlighting deficiencies in investigations and failure to bring to justice all the perpetrators, the organisers or the masterminds of these crimes (see https://www.coe.int/en/web/media-freedom/home ).

In recent times journalists have been murdered in Malta, Turkey, Ukraine, Serbia and Russia, while many face repressive laws, death threats, physical attacks, arrests and other forms of harassment. Journalists are increasingly being targeted by those who want to silence the messenger and crush debate and the public right to know. It’s time to step up our efforts to campaign politically for greater media freedom and the right to report. Failure is not an option, there is too much at stake.

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