The grisly details of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi are well known. It was a horrible crime, but perhaps less unique for its brutality than for the sustained public attention, and the chance that there may yet be justice.
Khashoggi entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on 28 September seeking marriage documents – he and his Turkish fiancée Hatice Cengiz were planning their wedding. The staff were friendly and he made an appointment to return in a few days. A Saudi citizen, Khashoggi left the Kingdom late last year after criticising the repressive new government of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and its intervention in the brutal Yemeni civil war. He had been living in the United States and writing for the Washington Post.
On 2 October they returned to the consulate and Khashoggi entered alone. Cengiz waited outside for eight hours but he never came back.
The details of what happened to him have been changing rapidly. After being reported missing, the Saudis quickly claimed he had left the consulate unharmed. They next said he started a fight and was killed accidentally, then that he was put in a choke-hold and accidentally suffocated. Evidence from Turkish officials – no friends to the Saudis nor, it must be said, to press freedom – has contradicted every explanation from Riyadh and pushed us toward what is likely the true one: that, alerted to Khashoggi’s presence in Turkey, the government dispatched a hit squad to kill him.
It can be hard to predict which issues will capture the news cycle, and it’s safe to assume the Saudis did not expect this crime to receive the attention that it did.
On 2 November the UN observes International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists. Impunity describes the failure to bring the perpetrators of crimes to justice and is an enabling condition for further violence. In its annual impunity report the Committee to Protect Journalists says that at least 324 journalists have been killed for their work in the past decade, and in 85 per cent of cases nobody is held accountable.
“Impunity is an effective way to silence journalists and creates a void of information,” the report’s author Elisabeth Witchel says in a press release.
“The fact that impunity continues to thrive in many of these countries year after year is a disturbing sign of how deeply rooted the problem is.”
The day was first held on 23 November 2011 to mark the Ampatuan (Maguindanao) Massacre in the southern Philippines. In the morning of that day in 2009 a convoy of 57 people, including 34 journalists and the family of a candidate for governor, were ambushed and murdered in apparently political attack by the incumbent. After nearly nine years there have still been no convictions. The CPJ are tracking eight other murders in the Philippines that have gone unpunished.
Australian journalism has had its own experience with impunity in the case of the Balibo Five. In October 1975 the Kiwi Gary Cunningham, Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie, and Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart – all working for Channels 7 and 9 – were in what was then known as Portuguese Timor (later renamed Timor Leste) reporting on the Indonesian military’s preparations for invasion. They were living in a white house dubbed ‘The Embassy’, with an Australian flag scrawled on the outside intended to convey their neutrality.
It didn’t work. They were surrounded there by Indonesian special forces, and after surrendering, they were executed, and their bodies burned. A sixth journalist, ABC Radio correspondent Roger East, was the last foreign reporter left in Timor. He went to investigate the deaths of the five and, six weeks later, was captured by Indonesian paratroopers and shot.
A coronial inquest completed in 2007 found that the five men “were not armed; they were dressed in civilian clothes; all of them at one time or another had their hands raised in the universally recognised gesture of surrender”.
The Australian government has its own responsibility here. Then-Senator Nick Xenophon wrote on the 40th anniversary of the murders that Australian diplomats never made any protest, and that they said instead that “their immediate diplomatic problem was to … reduce the pressure on the Indonesians.”
There have been many high-profile attacks on journalists over the past 18 months. In October 2017 in Malta, the anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, known internationally for her work on the Panama Papers, was killed by a bomb placed in her car. In the year since, the Maltese government has been accused of deliberately stalling the investigation into her death, prompting intervention by European officials.
In Afghanistan in April, a man dressed as a photographer presented a fake media pass, entered a cordoned-off section and detonated a bomb, killing nine journalists. Among them was photographer Shah Marai, who wrote movingly in 2016 about his fear of suicide attacks:
“But there is no more hope. Life seems to be even more difficult than under the Taliban because of the insecurity. I don’t dare to take my children for a walk. I have five and they spend their time cooped up inside the house. Every morning as I go to the office and every evening when I return home, all I think of are cars that can be booby-trapped, or of suicide bombers coming out of a crowd. I can’t take the risk.”
Swedish journalist Kim Wall was killed by Peter Madsen while interviewing him off the coast of Copenhagen. Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak was investigating government corruption when he and fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered in their homes. In both of these cases there has been some amount of justice: Madsen was convicted in April 2018, and in Slovakia eight people have been charged.
It is a tragedy when a journalist is killed, and we should expect justice in every instance. We should also consider what they died for. Caruana Galizia and Kuciak were killed for trying to expose government corruption. Kuciak’s death sent tens of thousands of people into the streets of Bratislava, Brno, Nitra and other cities, eventually forcing the resignation of the Prime Minister. Kuciak’s colleagues, picking up his work, have uncovered more corruption and caused further resignations. The Daphne Project is a similar effort led by the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Sarajevo to pick up the murdered Maltese journalist’s work.
Khashoggi, a man who had been close to the House of Saud, had grown increasingly critical of it. In May of this year, after Mohammad bin Salman’s reputation had been thoroughly rinsed by the United States press, he warned that the Crown Prince is ‘totally in control … [there is] no-one to challenge his rules’. The journalist’s death has been the biggest test yet of that assertion and, for justice to prevail, we should hope that on this he was wrong.
First published to my newsletter Notes on 19 in November 2018.