CPJ continues to demand Biden administration hold those responsible for journalist killings to account
President Biden’s recent Middle East trip was a key opportunity for his administration to support the cause of press freedom. Before and during the trip, CPJ repeatedly urged the administration not to normalize journalist killings and to demand accountability for the deaths of journalists Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh. We spoke with Senior Middle East and North Africa Researcher Justin Shilad to learn more about the trip and how CPJ is addressing impunity in the region.
What is it about Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh’s cases that make them emblematic for ending impunity not just in the Middle East but around the world?
Jamal Khashoggi and Shireen Abu Akleh were both respected journalists in their fields who used far-reaching platforms to hold the powerful to account. Khashoggi was a Washington Post columnist who covered human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia and the humanitarian toll of the country’s military campaign in Yemen, while Abu Akleh was a veteran Al-Jazeera reporter who brought stories of the hardships Palestinians endure under Israeli occupation to millions of viewers in the region. Both used their prestigious posts to amplify the voices of those who are often not heard.
Abu Akleh was a U.S. citizen, and Khashoggi was a permanent resident, but neither were protected by their U.S. connections. Impunity in their cases sends a grim message to journalists worldwide, particularly those not affiliated with well-known international outlets or without a claim to protection by the world’s most powerful government.
How does President Biden’s recent trip to the Middle East leave journalists in the region more vulnerable?
President Biden’s trip, whether intentionally or not, broadcast the message that politics trump principle. Biden came to office promising to repair the image that the U.S. presents to the world, specifically championing democratic values and human rights, including press freedom. By meeting with leaders in the region–some of whom are the leading jailers of journalists in the world–and not having his engagement contingent on a meaningful path toward accountability for Khashoggi and Abu Akleh’s deaths, Biden treated press freedom in a transactional way, rather than as the life breath of democracy worldwide.
The Israeli government describes itself as the only democracy in the region, and the Saudi government describes itself as undertaking bold and overdue reforms. Neither of these self-descriptions can be squared with the lack of accountability or justice in journalist killings, and at the very least Biden should have said so plainly.
How have CPJ and civil society groups advocated on behalf of Khashoggi and Abu Akleh?
CPJ has worked with the journalists’ family members and colleagues, as well as with partner organizations, to elevate both of their cases with members of the media, the general public, and with policymakers worldwide–but particularly within the U.S. government. Last week, following a meeting between Abu Akleh’s family and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, CPJ joined with Abu Akleh’s family, several partner organizations, and members of Congress to organize a press conference in Washington, D.C., calling for justice in her case.
In her remarks, CPJ Advocacy and Communications Director Gypsy Guillén Kaiser said that the U.S. “must not prioritize power relations over the rights of people. The U.S. must move decisively in its pursuit of an FBI investigation into the killing of its own citizen, Shireen Abu Akleh.”
The U.S. has an obligation to both journalists, given their citizenship and permanent residency, and more importantly, the U.S. government has an obligation to the world to stand by the values it professes, particularly with close allies.
ICYMI: CPJ to honor four courageous journalists at IPFA
CPJ recently announced plans to honor four journalists with our 2022 International Press Freedom Awards in November. From Cuba, Iraqi Kurdistan, Ukraine, and Vietnam, our award winners have faced legal harassment, censorship, attacks, and imprisonment, all for their work as journalists.
They include Abraham Jiménez Enoa (Cuba), Niyaz Abdullah (Iraqi Kurdistan), Sevgil Musaieva (Ukraine), and Pham Doan Trang (Vietnam). Jiménez is a Cuban freelance journalist and co-founder of the online narrative journalism magazine El Estornudo, as well as a columnist for The Washington Post and Gatopardo. He was forced to flee to Spain following persistent harassment and censorship, including threats of legal repercussions if he continued to publish in The Washington Post. Abdullah, a prominent Iraqi Kurdish freelance journalist, is also living in exile—in France—after she was detained and threatened with violence by security forces and local authorities. Musaieva, editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, Ukraine’s leading independent online newspaper, has worked relentlessly since the Russian invasion to ensure the safety of her staff. Trang, a reporter specializing in human rights, founder of the independent legal magazine Luat Khoa, and an editor and writer for the independent English-language website The Vietnamese, is currently serving a nine-year sentence for “making or spreading news against the state.”
CPJ will also honor Galina Timchenko, editor of the independent Russian news website Meduza, with the 2022 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award. Timchenko fled Russia due to pressure from authorities during the previous invasion of Ukraine in 2014. The Gwen Ifill award is presented annually by CPJ’s board of directors in recognition of extraordinary and sustained commitment to press freedom.
CPJ spoke with more than 50 Kenyan journalists and press freedom advocates and published the views of six who shared concerns about the upcoming general elections, especially amid sexualized attacks on female reporters. “You’re not metal, you’re not a piece of iron, of course you must be afraid,” Judie Kaberia, executive director of a women’s media organization, told CPJ. “The ripple effect is that the women shy away from reporting on politics.”
CPJ asked Ruslan Smieshchuk, a reporter for the privately owned Ukrainian TV channel Inter, to recount a single day of reporting when he traveled to cover the bombing of a Ukrainian school. “When you work in a war, you are constantly confronted with naked human grief,” Smieshchuk recounted in his diary, “but you must preserve your ability to empathize with people, your humanity, and at the same time, not burn out from the work, not get traumatized.”
CPJ also spoke with three Togolese journalists one year after news broke about a list of over 50,000 phone numbers, including theirs, which were allegedly selected for surveillance with Pegasus spyware. The state of surveillance has made it increasingly difficult for journalists to find sources who will speak to them. “They have fear to speak with me,” Komlanvi Ketohou said. “Fear that what they say will be listened to by Togolese authorities.”
CPJ in the news
“Governments ramp up demands for user info, Twitter warns,” The Associated Press
“Shireen Abu Akleh family meets Blinken in Washington,” Al-Jazeera
“Morocco wages all-out war on freedom of expression,” The New Arab
“Is freedom of expression under threat in India?” Deutsche Welle
“Cuban journalist faces 6-years for ‘sharing enemy propaganda,’” Havana Times
“Ten years without answers for family of journalist Austin Tice,” Voice of America
“Hacking the press: The surveillance threat to MENA’s journalists,” The New Arab
“Mexican journalist complains to president of threats,” The Associated Press