What Jamal Khashoggi’s death tells us about attitudes to journalism

It seems increasingly likely that Jamal Khashoggi met his death in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. It also seems likely that what brought about the journalist’s torture and murder was his antipathetic coverage of the Saudi regime. And it seems likely that the Saudi regime felt empowered to act with impunity because of the pusillanimity of the international community.

Since 1990, more than 2,500 accredited journalists have been killed around the world for carrying out their work. Some of these cases are high profile: Khashoggi, Daphne Caruana Galicia in Malta, Marie Colvin in Syria,  Terry Lloyd in Iraq, Martin O’Hagan in Northern Ireland, and on, and on. All are tragedies. But the vast majority go below the radar. And even those high profile cases have rarely been met with appropriate sanctions.

When did journalists’ lives become so insignificant? Sadly, it is not a new phenomenon. Reuters keeps an “In Memoriam” book, which commemorates those journalists who have died on the front line over the last 130 years. What seems to have changed in recent times is the contempt in which the profession is held: the constant sneer of ‘fake news’ from mendacious politicians like Trump and Putin has emboldened rogue regimes. When the British Prime Minister feels able to say “it’s only the press”, she reinforces the sense that the media is an unnecessary burden.

Sadly, it is a story played out around the world. The irony is that it is Turkey’s media who have led the way in exposing the Khashoggi case – it has been under incessant attack from president Erdogan, who has had hundreds of journalists arrested or fired, and changed media laws. The Hungarian president Orban has bullied and closed numerous news outlets. A report from Article 19 last year indicated that press freedom is at its lowest levels ever, and cited 426 physical attacks on journalists and media outlets in Mexico alone. The Economist’s coverage this week on Chinese influence in African media is both comical and alarming. But the Reporters Sans Frontiers’ press freedom index is not comical at all. It highlights the Philippines leader, Duterte, warning journalists that they are “not exempted from assassination” and the Czech president turning up at a press conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists”.

I used to live in Zimbabwe – ranked 126 in the RSF index. I have seen what can happen when the media is systematically undermined. A country without a truly diverse and free media is not a democracy. Worse, suppression of the press always goes hand in hand with oppression of the people. A world where leaders like Trump and May can dismiss journalists as irrelevant is fatally flawed.

Journalists, editors, and media owners have a duty to hold the powerful to account. Khashoggi’s death underlines why that is important, and the price that is still being paid by journalists. It would be an appalling indictment of the current global leadership’s attitude to media freedom and human rights if the Saudi regime was able to go unpunished.

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.