Remember Jamal Khashoggi by fighting for a free press

The brutal murder and dismemberment of The Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident in a place that was supposed to be a safe haven is a somber reminder that we can't take universal freedoms for granted.

Journalist Jamal Khashoggi's life was brutally ended in Turkey last month (Pic: Getty Images).
Journalist Jamal Khashoggi's life was brutally ended in Turkey last month (Pic: Getty Images).

Is there a more stark way to send a message to a journalist that an entity disapproves of their articles than cutting off the fingers the person used to write those words?

Yet, according to multiple well-sourced reports, that’s exactly what happened to Saudi Arabian journalist, Washington Post columnist, and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi on October 2 at the Middle Eastern country’s consulate in the iconic Turkish city of Istanbul.

Not only were Khashoggi’s fingers cut off, he was apparently conscious while it happened, and was then tortured, mutilated, sedated, and dismembered by a Saudi state-sponsored hit squad dispatched to Turkey specifically to carry out this horrific and gruesome task.

The official definition of a consulate includes phrases such as it being a place to assist and protect the citizens of the consul’s own country and to facilitate friendship between the people of the two countries. It would be the understatement of the century to point out that Saudi citizen Khashoggi was afforded none of these privileges when he entered the building in a leafy suburb of Istanbul.

Meanwhile, in the United States just over three weeks later, the Time Warner Center offices of CNN in New York City were hastily evacuated when a suspicious package arrived at the cable company’s HQ following the delivery of similar items to prominent Democrats and critics of President Donald Trump.

The man accused of sending 14 explosive devices through the mail, Aventura, Florida-based Cesar Sayoc, 56, is now in custody and facing charges that, if successfully prosecuted, would likely see him spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Sayoc drove a white van plastered with stickers supporting President Trump and pictures of critics of the president with targets on them, was prolific on social media, and liked to sport a Make America Great Again cap. There are images of him at one of Trump's rallies holding a "CNN sucks" banner.

Trump has consistently targeted the media – or "The Fake News" as he calls them – in the period leading up to his election as president in 2016, in the intervening two years, and, especially, in the run-up to next week’s midterm elections. He characterizes elements of the media as "Enemies of the People."

In Russia, at least four senior journalists have died in suspicious circumstances this year and, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 1,324 journalists have been killed in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

A free press is essential to democracy. It is a fundamental tenet of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – a Constitution President Trump chooses to protect to the maximum of his ability in other circumstances when it suits his purposes.

Contrary to what Fox & Friends anchor Ainsley Earhardt said this week, it is not the press' job to "report the story the way that I [Trump] want it reported."

And the practice of PR fundamentally relies on a free press to thrive. In August, industry bodies including Page, the PRSA, PR Council, and IPR joined hundreds of media organizations in releasing a statement defending the importance of journalism.

The statement quoted Thomas Jefferson’s commitment to the press and underlined the importance of the Fourth Estate as a "vital engine of democracy."

It is important that we don’t become complacent about the dangers facing our free press – and democracy in general – in modern America.

President Ronald Reagan once said: "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same."

Whether you subscribe to the - admittedly slightly pompous in my humble opinion - motto of Khashoggi's paper, The Washington Post, that "Democracy Dies in Darkness," or The New York Times' updated mission that "The Truth is More Important Now Than Ever," or some other philosophy, it's time to take a stand.

Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger told CNN's Brian Stelter this week: "An independent press is not a liberal ideal or a progressive ideal or a democratic ideal. It's an American ideal." But he added that this is an "all-hands-on-deck" time for journalism.

As journalists mourn fallen colleagues such as Jamal Khashoggi, it is incumbent on all of us to heed the warnings and participate in our democratic processes while we still have the opportunity to do so.

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