Within the first month at the National Interest Foundation, I met a man whose unfortunate fate would ultimately redirect my career. The first interaction with this man came with an intense feeling as if I should be wary of something, a sign of some sort, an intuitive instinct that I will never forget as I paused wondering what came over me and why. As a constant visitor and friend of the organization, he came with a lot of knowledge, his own opinions, and a shared hope for a better, freer Middle East where outside cultures are explored and love is embraced. On October 2, 2018, this man, our colleague and friend, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.
I found out Jamal went missing before any of the news was publicized. Unexpectedly, a murder mystery story started unraveling little by little, getting worse and worse, surrounding a man passionate about reform for the sake of his people and ending the largest humanitarian disaster to date in Yemen. Watching things unfold slowly from behind the scenes, I began to realize the importance of my position and exposure as a young Middle Eastern-American woman. I personally struggled with self-expression for most of my life, principally post 9/11.
Given the hostile environment of Middle Eastern geopolitics and decline in global press freedom, I had taken a lot of time to digest and analyze the incident. Its aftermath led me to learn more about declining democracy and threats to media freedom. I was directly witnessing the real problem of the toxic degree power and money has in politics over integrity, character, respect for human rights, and the rule of law.
Whether a killer decides to use a bone saw or gun, people such as Jamal do not simply die. He lives on as a symbol for not only foreign dissidents, but activists and human rights journalists across the globe. His story continues with multiple active investigations, proposed U.S. legislation, and further public discussion on issues like press freedom, oppression in the face of authoritarianism, and justice for truth seekers. Unlike many reporters who stay anonymous, Jamal, a former close executive to the Saudi royal family, was not only a robust advocate for reform but also a journalist highly active in Washington and well-known internationally. His brutal murder allowed other cases of silencing, torture, and imprisonment to be acknowledged on a much larger scale.
He also empowers and inspires individuals like me to write, despite my hesitance and anxiety on whether anything I produce will do him justice. As writers, we have the ability to stir people, serve as a voice and a link between the government and its people, and be a conscious for society. To protect the larger free press culture that defines us, we should ensure the work we do is honest, responsible, and ethical.
That is why we need more stories that connect decision-making to consequences and humanity. It is stigmatizing that human rights journalists are vulnerable and threatened rather than embraced. It is a relentless pursuit to seek truth and report on the fundamentals of human survival while putting your life at risk, especially when people in power are manipulating information. Human rights journalists are exactly the ones we need to take us outside our bubbles and see life reflected in its true scope, chaos and all.
In response, these stories should manufacture a rise in newer voices in pursuit of innovative technologies, policies, practices, and research that redefines the present and the future of a functioning humane civil society. Otherwise, we are only limiting our uniquely highly developed complex human abilities to repair and resolve conflicts.
A consistent and principled position in defense of press freedom is rooted in U.S. history and its founding legal documents. The language of the First Amendment should be embodied in our leaders and embraced abroad through diplomatic practice. Given the extent and intensity of threats to reporting on human rights, it is more important than ever that the U.S. provide global leadership to find the right balance between lofty aims of promoting democracy and human rights and the harder imperatives of global statecraft. I do not believe stiff intervention is ideal – change is slow, especially in intricate systematic corrupt governments. However, our voices should be heard to accelerate the process peacefully, which means having a stronger connection between the people and the media is necessary. Further research and institutional powers should find ways of strengthening and solidify the connection to the best of their abilities.
As we observe the anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi, it is recognized that if the abominable crime goes unpunished, journalists will continue to work in an environment of uncertainty and vulnerability around the world until those responsible are brought to justice. The way a country treats its people tells you something about the leader of that country. A failure to act allows threats to grow, and for more lives to be lost.
The role of journalists is to build bridges by conveying information that leads to understanding and empathy through stories of persistence, triumph and breakthrough, vital in keeping us connected to our core values of accountability, honesty, and democracy. For the sake of the children and women in Yemen, the protesters in Iraq and Hong Kong, ostracized minorities, and anyone struggling to live free and be heard under oppressive governments across the globe, as Jamal writes “I speak. So many people cannot do anything, and so I must.”
To see more information on legislation and conversations by leaders in the international community seeking #JusticeforJamal, see the NIF Panel Report on the event hosted by the Project on Middle East Democracy, Human Rights Watch, and others by clicking here.
For a video of Jamal speaking at the NIF exclusive event “Yemen: The Forgotten War”, click here.