Five years ago, Nov 2nd was declared as the “UN International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists”, against a background of rising violence – and murder – against journalists across the globe. The lack of any organised activity in Guyana by the media fraternity to commemorate the occasion — even though 78 journalists were killed and thousands imprisoned in 2017, and only last month there was the most brutal and gruesome murder and dismemberment of the Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Turkey — symbolises that we who report the news – especially against authoritarian governments – do not realise we are all “Jamal” now.
With the invention of the printing press in the 16th century, the latter gave its name to the reporting of the news, first in pamphlets and then in “newspapers”. By the late 19th century, the press had layed such a pivotal role in sensitising the people to the burning issues of the day that Edmund Burke declared it to be the “Fourth Estate” – alongside the other three estates that defined European society of the time – the nobles, the Church and the “commoners”. Burke claimed this fourth estate potentially had as much power as any of the other estates.
In the 20th century, with the anti-colonial movement sweeping aside colonial empires with the assistance of their local presses, ironically many of these new states adopted an authoritarian form ostensibly to hasten the development process. In this mode, several of them, including Guyana in the 1970s, demanded that the press hone to the Government’s line on news, and severely curtailed press freedom. But as even the ostensible Liberal states — with their declared commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech — increased their reach and power, the press and its journalists, who had become the voice of the people against state excesses, were increasingly resented by them to a lesser or greater degree.
It would appear that no matter how well-intentioned governments declare themselves to be in regard to transparency of their operations to the people who appoint them, the tension between governments and journalists is inherent in the unequal power relationship. It is not necessarily that “power corrupts,” but power is assumed to confer to the governors a wider, all-encompassing perspective for the “national good”. States frequently invoke the blanket term “national security” to justify their refusal to deal with the press, and journalists have to thread a very thin line to inform the populace about what is going on behind the scenes.
Of recent, there has been a new development in Government-press relations with the advent of US President Donald Trump and a wave of bellicose governments. Trump introduced the term “fake news” and used his bully pulpit – especially “Twitter” — to undermine the credibility of journalists covering US affairs and himself. In the wake of this development in the country long seen as the bastion of the free press, other countries have become bolder in suppressing press freedom with accusations of “fake news”.
In reaction to the Khashoggi murder, Trump has spoken out vociferously about “getting to the bottom of the murder”, but has been unwilling to impose sanctions against US ally Saudi Arabia, which has been stonewalling investigators and the world. The power behind the Saudi throne, Prince Salman, who is widely thought to be the intellectual author of the heinous crime, retains Trump’s confidence. Turkey, in whose territory the murder was committed, and who has officially implicated the Saudi Government, is no friend of the free press. Its president has imprisoned 174 journalists, and insisted on life sentences for five of them for reporting on his government’s accretion of power and suppression of the opposition.
All in all, we are in a climate of growing impunity by perpetrators of crimes against journalists, and the murder of Khashoggi has only highlighted the refusal of governments to “walk the walk” after their high sounding “talk”.
We must all demand “Justice for Jamal”, for it could be our turn next.