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Capital Scooper: Freedom of Expression Shrinks Worldwide

I have returned from an enlightening journey to Vietnam and Cambodia. Neither country is free from the taint of political and corporate corruption and public restlessness. However, both nations have come a long way in economic reforms and modernization efforts. America's, and before that France's, wars in Southeast Asia have passed from the limelight to shadows. The new generation of young citizens of these countries have forgotten the details and are looking forward to integration with a blooming but troubled global civilization.

Opinion: However, the temperature of politics worldwide is rising. Opinion-driven social media (without a face) is steering dense populations comprised of competing interests to embrace strongmen leaders (often backed by billions of dollars), hoping that decisive policies, moral or amoral, will create more order and certainty in their lives. Casualties of this march to security are transparency, freedom of expression (free speech), family breakdowns and disintegration, variable justice, the compromise of education and science, religious and ethnic intolerance, and individual despair.

Here I briefly address the fate of a "free press." I am a constant critic of the mainstream media in the US. That is because, as an editor and journalist for decades, I have observed a public media that is increasingly a pawn of the commercial entertainment industry. The emphasis in the news is increasingly emotional rather than rational, considered and unbiased. However, a free press remains a guarantor of some transparency and a check on the abuse of power.

Journalism, today, is increasingly facing a new menace, other than the mediocrity of the general public's thirst for entertainment. The political fires now burning in many places across the globe, even in the US, are attempting to consume information; and it appears that political operatives (even world leaders) are engaged in nefarious, even brutal, plots to kill the messengers.

News. Last week in Washington DC (at a National Press Club headliner luncheon), Director General of Al Jazeera Dr. Mostefa Souag pled with journalists and varied policy wonks including members of the World Affairs Council to be warier of the hotter winds in the political climate.

Al Jazeera Media Network (AJMN) is a Middle Eastern multinational multimedia conglomerate and is the parent company of Al Jazeera (and related networks). The networks' news operations currently are based in more than 100 bureaus around the world, the second largest outlet producer of any media company in the world after the BBC (British Broadcasting Corp.).

At the request of the Trump Administration, this media group was ordered to register in the US as a "foreign agent." At least 11 employees of this media company have been killed so far while acting on behalf of the news gathering functions.

Of great significance also and bearing ominous implications for both political and journalistic integrity worldwide, only a short time after Mr. Souag's talk at the US press club headquarters a very well-known Washington Post reporter, Jamal Khashoggi , entered the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul, Turkey, and it is believed now he may have left hours later “in multiple pieces” (body parts), after an assassination within the consulate. His death, at this time, remains rumor and uncertain. The Saudis deny any knowledge of his whereabouts. He may still be alive.

Saudi Arabia is at war with Yemen and is a vigorous critic and active aggressor against Qatar, where Al Jazeera's base headquarters (Doha) is located.

Al Jazeera: The original Al Jazeera Satellite Channel launched in 1996 to replace a BBC channel that closed when the Saudi government attempted to block a documentary pertaining to executions under Sharia law. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, provided a loan of $137 million to sustain Al Jazeera through its first five years (Hugh Miles; Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West).

In June 2017, the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini, and Egyptian governments demanded the closure of the news station as one of thirteen demands made to Qatar during a 2017 conflict dubbed the Qatar Crisis. Other media networks have spoken out in support of the network. The Atlantic magazine posed that Al Jazeera (especially Al Jazeera English) presents a far more moderate, Westernized face than Islamic jihadism or rigid Sunni orthodoxy. Though the network has been criticized as "an 'Islamist' stalking horse, it actually features "very little specifically religious content in its broadcasts," according to the Atlantic report. Last week in Washington DC, Al Jazeera's director recited uncounted instances whereby its journalists have been killed, harassed and threatened throughout the Middle East and beyond. If threatened, "reporters may be compelled to self-censor, and we can't allow that to happen," stated Moustefa Souag. Alluding to suspicions of some ideologues in the US that the media outlet is run by and influenced directly by state governments, Souag vehemently insisted that his media organization does not take orders from anybody; its professional editors make all decisions. Public funds are shared with Al Jazeera, he conceded, but this is no different from the way some financing is funneled to public broadcasting operations in many other nations. "We are completely independent, " he repeated.

Fate of Khashoggi: If murdered within a national embassy, the journalist Khashoggi's (a Washington Post columnist) demise would constitute one of the most brazen acts of villainy in near modern history. Khashoggi has been in self-imposed exile in the US since 2017 but planned to move to Istanbul. At this publishing moment, the mystery surrounding Khashoggi’s disappearance last week only gets deeper.

One British journalist colleague of his, Bill Law, wrote, "I grieve for Jamal, for his family and for his fiancé. But I have, too, a great sense of foreboding that this attack represents an appalling assault on freedom of expression and on the right to speak truth to power. Not just in the Arabian Peninsula but everywhere."

Turkey now is seeking access to search the Saudi consulate in the Khashoggi case.

Law asserted he has a "deep sense of sadness and foreboding. If, as appears increasingly to be the case, the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is dead then I grieve the loss of a talented, deeply committed writer, a man who loved his country but was not afraid to speak out as a voice of thoughtful criticism.”

Bill Law wrote: "I have known Jamal Khashoggi for more than 15 years. From my first meeting with him in 2002 in Jeddah, when he was the deputy editor-in-chief of Arab News, the leading Gulf English language daily, I was struck by two things: his wonderful sense of humor at some of the absurdities of life that we all share and his commitment to work towards a more open Saudi Arabia where critical voices were not a threat but a contribution to the painstakingly slow process of building a civil society in a country that was desperately in need of change."

"There was a time not so very long ago when the British government would decry attacks on journalists and use its influence to try and ameliorate some of the worst excesses of authoritarian regimes. From the time that Jamal Khashoggi went missing, there was an opportunity for the government of the UK to speak up. The silence of my government is shameful.” There has also been a remarkably mild and low key response from US government officials and from some media outlets including the Wall Street Journal.

According to Law, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, “bent on driving through Vision 2030, his radical remake of the Saudi economy,” regarded Khashoggi as his own personal enemy. “Khashoggi's was a voice that threatened this increasingly insecure leader and one that had to be silenced. His Washington Post columns were the sort of writing I had come to know him for: thoughtful, tough, critical but balanced."

National Press Club Statement (October 6, 2018)

The National Press Club (NPC) in Washington DC (I am a member) expressed "profound concern" about the continued disappearance of a Saudi journalist and especially about reports he may have been killed by Saudi government personnel." Roughly 17 Saudi operatives have been tracked entering Turkey (and the Saudi embassy) shortly before the disappearance and leaving the country later that same day.

"If Khashoggi is alive and in detention, we call for his immediate release," said NPC President Andrea Edney. "If harm has come to him, those responsible must be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. We are closely watching developments in this case and we will not abide killing journalists." According to the Club, its Committee to Protect Journalists has documented growing censorship in Saudi Arabia and numerous cases of Saudi reporters being seized by authorities, including one man who was taken away as he visited his five-year-old son in the hospital.

"While Saudi Arabia is moving forward in many ways, its treatment of some reporters has been moving backwards, paradoxically, towards repression," said Andrea Edney. "We call on Saudi Arabia to release Khashoggi and any other journalists who have been detained because of their coverage. A healthy society requires a free press."

"If Saudi authorities have in fact captured Khashoggi because he has written critically about the Saudi government, that is unconscionable," said Barbara Cochran, president of the NPC's Journalism Institute, the club's non-profit arm. "It is a violation of his human rights and a step backward for Saudi Arabia."

Friedman Prays.

In an editorial today in the New York Times, columnist and friend of Khashoggi, Thomas Friedman, (Praying for Jamal Khashoggi) declared that if Saudi Arabia killed Khashoggi “it will be a disaster for the regime of Mohammed bin Salman.”

According to Friedman, Jamal came to believe that Salman’s dark side was completely taking over. “I was shocked — but not surprised — to pick up the paper and read that Saudi Arabia stood accused of abducting or murdering Jamal Khashoggi while he was on a visit to the Saudi consulate …. We still need to see hard evidence that these allegations are true. I truly hope that they are not. But this smells to high heaven, and it fits a steadily worsening trend.”

If Jamal was abducted or murdered by agents of the Saudi government, it will be a … a tragedy for Saudi Arabia and all the Arab Gulf countries. It would be an unfathomable violation of norms of human decency, worse not in numbers but in principle than even the Yemen war. What Western leader, and how many Western investors, will want to stand alongside [Salman] if it is proved that his government abducted or murdered Jamal?”

Friedman concluded, “So I am praying for Jamal. Every country needs its constructive critics. The medicine they dispense is distasteful to most leaders, but it often makes them healthier in the end.”

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