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The dire state of press freedom: Khashoggi, technology and fake news

Updated: Oct 12, 2021

The recent disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has raised interesting questions about the current state of press freedom.

Khashoggi was a prominent Saudi journalist who resided in the US. In October, he visited the Saudi consulate in Turkey, where he was murdered. Writing for The Washington Post, Khashoggi had been very critical of the current Saudi government and its Crown Prince. It is thus not surprising that most of the international community believes that Khashoggi’s disappearance is the Saudi government’s doing. The regime has claimed, however, that the journalist was killed in a “rogue operation”. With new updates emerging everyday about Saudi Arabia’s role, it is almost very certain Khashoggi’s murder was planned despite their claims. This is not the first time that whistle-blowers, investigative reporters or dissident journalists have been executed, imprisoned or subject to mob-killings for their work. What is perhaps surprising is that a number of these cases have occurred in the past five years. Violence and prosecution has occurred across the world in countries that include, but are not limited to, India, Russia, Malta, and Myanmar.

Source: Unsplash

An interesting perspective considers how technological change has caused these increased restrictions on journalistic freedom. A recent Washington Post op-ed examined the importance of the information revolution caused by the unprecedented technological advancement of the 21st century. Now, content written by a dissident journalist can reach smartphones across the world in a matter of minutes, having the potential to spread like wildfire through social media. This exponentially wider reach increases the risk journalists face from the entities they are attempting to call out. Everything that Jamal Khashoggi wrote in The Washington Post could be read by every Saudi citizen with a smartphone or computer. Non-violent censorship is thus increasingly becoming ineffective in controlling public discourse and opinion, causing direct attacks against journalists to become almost commonplace.

Alternatively, restrictions on press freedom are taking place in new and sinister ways which may not be as overt as Khashoggi’s assassination.

In Russia, the state is known to release a barrage of false and contradictory news to drown out accurate information, subverting the very idea of what ‘truth’ means and reflecting an Orwellian dystopia. The USA has also emboldened violators of journalistic freedom across the world in their official response to Khashoggi’s murder. It stated that “[they] may never know all the facts surrounding the murder of Mr Jamal Khashoggi…The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia”, exonerating the regime of any blame in the tragedy. The fact that the ‘The Leader of the Free World’ cannot even rhetorically condemn an attack such as this has made him complicit in this crime. This is, perhaps, not surprising considering that President Trump has always attacked free press, labelling it as “enemies of the people”. He actively discredits all media sources that go against his official line, branding them as ‘fake news media’. In October, he openly praised a Congress member for violently attacking a journalist at a press conference, marking it as the first time an American president has done so.

The proliferation of fake news has made it easier for the truth to remain hidden, as we saw in Russia, and for the truth to be branded as ‘fake’, as we saw in the US. This has serious implications, not just on journalistic integrity, but also in the conduct of free and fair elections. Now, responsibility lies with the public to protect and fight for the truth. Fact-checking, reading a wide range of sources to gain a nuanced opinion, and not immediately dismissing sources that one disagrees with are vital practices in this post-truth world.

When considering the direct prosecution of independent journalists, the world further needs to come together in support and solidarity. Khashoggi’s murder is a broad overreach by a regime that has not been held accountable. Nevertheless, where their respective governments have failed, the people have the power to bring justice. For instance, in Slovakia earlier this year, mass protests following the assassination of Ján Kuciak, an investigative journalist, caused the prime minister to step down. Across the globe, silent vigils have occurred for Jamal Khashoggi to protest members of the press being used as pawns in geopolitical games.

Tawakkol Karman, WES2018 speaker and friend of Jamal Khashoggi has stated, “if the criminals behind this crime do not escape justice, it will lead to great change”.

Tulika Jain

N.B. This article reflects the author’s opinions only.



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