It has been more than eight months since Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and critic of his home country’s government who had been living in self-exile, was tortured, killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. As the Saudis bent over backward to obscure the truth about Khashoggi’s fate, Turkey launched an investigation. As expected, not much has come of it.
Turkey is hardly a credible advocate for press freedom: last year, more than 80 journalists in the country received long prison sentences or fines for their work. But even if the Turkish government’s indignation over Khashoggi’s murder was exaggerated for diplomatic gain, Turkey’s judiciary has complied with its international obligations to investigate.
Saudi Arabia, by contrast, is flouting its obligations on this front. Under international pressure, the kingdom is conducting hearings for 11 suspects. But, according to Agnes Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, these secretive, closed-door hearings are more about saving face than securing justice.
“We do not know who are charged as defendants, who among them face death sentences and what are the charges,” Callamard noted at a recent conference in Berlin. Western governments, she continued, “should not rubber-stamp a trial process that is ignoring all international standards”.
By accepting the results of criminal proceedings that lack transparency and due process, the international community would fail Khashoggi and severely damage the broader effort to end impunity for crimes against journalists. Unfortunately, there is precedent for precisely this outcome.
In 1982, at the height of El Salvador’s civil war, Colonel Mario Reyes Mena ordered his troops to set up an ambush just outside of the city of El Paraíso. Four journalists working for the Dutch broadcaster Interkerkelijke Omroep Nederland (IKON), who were in the country to report on the war, walked right into the trap and were essentially executed.
Amid the ensuing global outrage, El Salvador’s government tried hard to conceal the truth, claiming that the reporters were accidentally caught in crossfire between the army and the rebels. The United States government, which trained, advised and supplied the Salvadoran army, backed this explanation in public statements, spurring outraged protesters to descend on the US consulate general in Amsterdam.
But the victims’ colleagues did not give up: their research indicated that the four journalists had been deliberately targeted. Nearly a decade later, in 1993, the UN Truth Commission tasked with investigating the Salvadoran civil war confirmed this view. Yet Reyes Mena, now 79 years old, lives a quiet life in a suburb of Washington.
At first, this impunity could be explained by a 1993 amnesty law protecting the military, paramilitary groups and guerrilla fighters from prosecution for human-rights abuses committed during the war. But El Salvador’s supreme court overturned that law in 2016, declaring it unconstitutional.
Now, an ill-equipped and understaffed Salvadoran prosecutor, acting on a criminal complaint filed by the lawyers of one of the slain journalists’ brothers, is investigating possible criminal charges against Reyes Mena, as well as Francisco Antonio Moran, the former head of El Salvador’s secret police. But it is hardly clear that justice will be served, not least because of an enduring culture of impunity for crimes against journalists.
That culture is on stark display in Saudi Arabia, and not just over the Khashoggi killing. Dozens of journalists are in prison in that country. One of them, Turki bin Abdulaziz al-Jasser, was reportedly tortured to death in 2018. Saudi Arabia has faced no diplomatic penalty for such behaviour.
But impunity for perpetrators of crimes against journalists is not a foregone conclusion. Last year in Slovakia, 27-year-old journalist Ján Kuciak, who had been investigating alleged political corruption linked to organised crime, and his fiancée, Martina Kusnírová, were shot dead. After the killings, people took to the streets to demand that the authorities prosecute those responsible.
Public pressure, together with the European Union’s demands for due process, had a powerful effect: the prime minister resigned, the general prosecutor was replaced and an investigation was launched. In March, the businessperson Marián Kocner was charged with ordering the murders.
Even in El Salvador, there is now a glimmer of hope that justice will be served. Thanks to the work of human rights lawyers and activists, the resolve of the victims’ family members and former colleagues, and pressure from the Dutch government, the public prosecutor’s office is preparing to take statements from the relatives of the slain IKON journalists.
To support such efforts to secure justice for serious violent crimes against journalists, Free Press Unlimited and the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have started the initiative A Safe World for the Truth. Investigations of such crimes — carried out by a team of journalists, forensic specialists, legal experts and public data researchers — will be at the heart of the project.
To encourage public pressure such as that seen in Slovakia, the investigators will publish their findings in documentaries and on social media, and deliver them to the relevant authorities. If this does not spur credible action to bring perpetrators to justice, we will create an international body to prosecute cases in a transparent and open people’s tribunal on crimes against journalists.
Around the world, journalists risk their lives every day to shine a light on what those in power want to keep hidden. Those who end up paying the ultimate price — such as Khashoggi, Malta’s Daphne Caruana Galizia and Belarus’s Pavel Sheremet — deserve justice, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of the journalists who are still here, working to reveal to their readers, viewers and listeners the world as it really is. — © Project Syndicate
Leon Willems is the director of Free Press Unlimited, a nonprofit, non-governmental organisation based in Amsterdam.