Editorial | Jamal Khashoggi’s relevance to Jamaica
In his last column, published by The Washington Post last Wednesday, the disappeared and almost certainly murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi lamented the near-total absence of Arab countries, except for Tunisia, in the 'free' ledger of this year's Freedom of the World report.
He contrasted this with the great expectations during the Arab Spring when populations "expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information". Instead, Mr Khashoggi explained, "Expectations were quickly shattered.
"These societies either fell back into the old status quo, or faced even harsher conditions than before," he said. Government can crack down on the press and dissenters with impunity, fearing little for the "consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation, quickly followed by silence."
By the time his editors at the Post received his piece, Mr Khashoggi is believed to have been two days dead. He entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to conduct business and never re-emerged. The Turkish government says he was murdered and his body mutilated by a hit squad sent from Riyadh. Mr Khashoggi, who lived in the United States, was a critic of the Saudi government, including the de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
There has been international outcry over his presumed killing, but the jury remains out over how long this outrage will last and what consequence, if any, the Saudi government will have to bear for his behaviour. In any event, the Khashoggi affair has relevance for Jamaica. Its message is about a responsibility to protect and expand freedom, without the guarantee, or expectation, of support from traditional quarters.
JAMAICA BEHIND CARIBBEAN NEIGHBOURS
Happily, in the report referenced by Mr Khashoggi, prepared annually by Freedom House, Jamaica is ranked among the free nations of the world, with an aggregate score of 77 of a possible 100, on a range of indicators, covering political rights and civil liberties, including press freedom. Where one is the best and seven the worst, our freedom rating for political rights was two, and for civil liberties, three, for an average of 2.5. Jamaica, however, in aggregate score, ranked behind its Caribbean neighbours, Barbados (96), Dominica (93), Grenada (88), Belize (86), and Antigua and Barbuda (83).
The point here is not only that there is improvement, but that in the realm of democracy and freedoms, gains are earned, and maintained, by eternal vigilance, including by a free and inquisitive press, willing to hold power to account. That, as Mr Khashoggi's fate demonstrated, can be dangerous.
It used to be the case that America, for all its faults, could be counted on as the premier promoter, if not global guarantor, of such freedoms. With Donald Trump's transactional engagement of the world, that has changed. The moral foundation upon which America pursued democracy and its Jeffersonian ideals of the press mattered less to Mr Trump than whether the Saudis intended to purchase US$110 billion worth of American arms, or, it seems, any personal or business relationship the Trumps may enjoy with Crown Prince bin Salman. As Freedom House observed: "The potent challenge from authoritarian regimes made the United States' abdication of its traditional role all the more important."
Prime Minister Andrew Holness' declaration that the antidote to the corrosive power of false information and 'alternative facts' is a press "ferreting out the truth", suggests strong support for democracy. But declarations are not of themselves guarantors of sustainability. For, if Mr Trump's presidency proves anything, it's that a single and determined capricious personality with power and autarchic tendencies can quickly corrode and command institutions.
That's why the free press has to be ever vigilant, which we commit to being.