There is a direct line to be traced from the Oct. 2 murder and dismemberment in an Istanbul consulate of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to the expulsion on Oct. 5 of Financial Times Asia News Editor Victor Mallet half a world away in Hong Kong, to the jailing and murders of reporters across Asia.
That line is drawn by the refusal of US President Donald Trump and his administration to stand up for journalists. Hugh Eakin, writing in the New York Review of Books about the Khashoggi killing, said the Saudis “did what they did because they assumed they could get away with it.”
There was a time when US presidents, either publicly or quietly behind the scenes, warned dictators and oligarchs against doing what the Saudis assumed they could get away with. That is clearly no longer true.
Trump’s attacks on the press “are strategic, designed to undermine confidence in reporting and raise doubts about verifiable facts,” said David Kaye and Edison Lanza, the Special Rapporteurs on freedom of expression for the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, respectively, in a prepared statement issued on Aug. 2. The President has labeled the media as being the “enemy of the American people,” “very dishonest” or “fake news,” and accused the press of “distorting democracy” or spreading “conspiracy theories and blind hatred.”
How much that has influenced the world’s satraps is unclear. But so far, according to Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based journalistic watchdog organization, 67 journalists or citizen journalists have died this year, along with another four media assistants. This is an administration that seems not to care whether journalists live or die.
In the midst of this mayhem, Trump, earlier this week in the US state of Montana, praised Republican US Rep. Greg Gianforte for assaulting a reporter in his bid for Congress last year. “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy,” Trump was quoted as saying.
In virtually every campaign address the president has made in the 2018 midterm race, he has denounced the media, calling attention to what he calls “fake news” and inciting crowds to jeer at reporters.
The year 2018 was already shaping up to be one of the worst on record for the safety of journalists when those two events took place although obviously Mallet’s expulsion pales in relation to Khashoggi’s murder. Despite what appears to be clear evidence of the complicity of top Saudi Arabian officials in Khashoggi’s death, Trump continued to waffle and seek to back away from condemnation until forced into it by circumstances in Riyadh itself. In the meantime the Saudis have rounded up a flock of luckless aides to take the rap for Mohammad bin Salman, who is currently running the kingdom behind an ill-defined title.
Across the world. the number of journalists imprisoned hit a historical high, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, and the numbers of those killed is rising at a dismal rate.
The failure to speak out, according to Elana Beiser in a special report for CPJ, “reflects a dismal failure by the international community to address a global crisis in freedom of the press.”
As Beiser writes, “Far from isolating repressive countries for their authoritarian behavior, the United States, in particular, has cozied up to strongmen such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. At the same time, President Trump’s nationalistic rhetoric, fixation on Islamic extremism, and insistence on labeling critical media “fake news” serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists.
Globally, nearly three-quarters of journalists are jailed on anti-state charges, many under broad and vague terror laws, while the number imprisoned on a charge of “false news,” though modest, rose to a record 21.
In its annual prison census, CPJ found 262 journalists behind bars around the world in relation to their work, a new record after a historical high of 259 last year, according to the CPJ’s report. The worst three jailers are responsible for jailing 134–or 51 percent–of the total. CPJ has been conducting an annual survey of journalists in jail since the early 1990s.
Turkey, CPJ says, remains the world’s worst jailer for the second consecutive year, with 73 journalists behind bars, compared with 81 last year. Dozens more still face trial, and fresh arrests take place regularly. In several other cases in Turkey, CPJ was unable to establish a link to journalism. Other press freedom groups using a different methodology have higher numbers. Every journalist CPJ found jailed for their work in Turkey is under investigation for, or charged with, anti-state crimes, as was true of last year’s census.
Erdoğan’s government, Beiser wrote, has appeared to pay little price for its repressive tactics. In April, he narrowly won a referendum–amid procedural objections by the opposition that went unheeded–that will abolish the country’s parliamentary system and grant him sweeping powers.
On the international stage, German officials including Chancellor Angela Merkel have repeatedly called for the release of Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yücel, who works for the German newspaper Die Welt and who has been held without charge since February 14. But the NATO allies are bound by Turkey’s role in harboring Syrian refugees and other cooperation agreements.
Also enjoying global standing is President Xi. In China, the number of journalists behind bars rose to 41 from 38 a year earlier.
“On a visit to Beijing in November,” she wrote, “Trump made no public reference to human rights, despite an ongoing crackdown that has led to the arrests of Chinese journalists, activists, and lawyers. With tensions high between the US and China’s neighbor North Korea, and Trump keen to renegotiate the trade balance with Beijing, ‘Trump seemed to signal a reversal of roles: the United States may now need China’s help more than the other way around,’ The New York Times wrote.
More than half of the journalists imprisoned in Egypt, where the number in jail fell to 20 from 25 last year, are also in poor health, the CPJ said. Among them is photographer Mahmoud Abou Zeid, known as Shawkan, who was arrested covering a violent dispersal of protesters by Egyptian security forces and has been in pretrial detention for more than four years.
CPJ found that 35 journalists worldwide have been jailed without any publicly disclosed charge.
Lack of due process in some countries results in such a dearth of information that it’s nearly impossible for CPJ to determine what landed a journalist in jail, whether they have any health problems, and sometimes even whether they are alive. In places such as Eritrea and Syria, journalists who were last known to be in government custody have not been seen or heard from in years.
Charles Sennott, writing in the Ground Truth Project, said the Trump administration is sending a message to autocrats around the world: There is an “open season on killing journalists, who Trump himself has repeatedly called ‘the enemy of the people.’”
John Berthelsen is Asia Sentinel’s editor.