Saving free expression in MENA: what happens after Khashoggi’s death?

Update, 11/21/2018: U.S. President Trump has issued a statement to signal support for the Saudi regime despite the killing, while pressure grows for an independent, impartial, international investigation at the United Nations. We continue to urge support for this investigation as the only real pathway for justice in this case.

The right to freedom of expression underpins our ability to exercise key civil liberties. It can facilitate debate and dissent, guarantee a free press, and provide a platform for defending our human rights. Without it, citizens are uninformed or misinformed, void of the ability to hold those in power accountable. In an environment of increasingly repressive governments, as the need for open public discourse grows, so too do the risks associated with speaking freely.

Over the last three weeks, the world has observed an atrocious case of government crackdown on the right to free expression through the story of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist who disappeared after entering the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul earlier this month. On Friday, October 19, after weeks of avoidance and denial, Saudi Arabia announced that Khashoggi’s death was an accident, resulting from a fight with 15 officials in the consult who intended take him back to Saudi Arabia. Many observers believe this was in fact an intentionally targeted killing, and independent U.N. experts and NGOs are calling for an independent international investigation. Access Now strongly supports this call. Khashoggi’s evident murder is not unique, but a high-profile example of the 45 journalists killed so far in 2018, and perpetrators are rarely held accountable. The impunity must end.  

Khashoggi became a public critic of Saudi Arabia last year, representing a rupture from his earlier career as a regime insider. In asserting his views about the mounting repression in his homeland, Khashoggi sought to demonstrate the growing autocracy of the regime, despite the risks associated with doing so in an era of diminishing freedom of expression in the Kingdom. He persevered, writing in his first Washington Post column that “to do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison. I can speak when so many cannot.”

We at Access Now are deeply saddened by the news of Khashoggi’s death and the way in which governments, emboldened by the current erosion of democracy around the world, are increasingly committing grave human rights abuses.

As the 2010 and 2011 uprisings leveraged technology as a tool for securing a more free and open society and internet, governments across the region have too employed online tactics to suppress speech and protect their interests, through tailored laws that facilitate the silencing of dissent and imprisonment of activists. In the past, embassies and consulates were previously considered safe havens, yet Khashoggi’s death illustrates the continued shrinking of spaces safe from those seeking to exert their power and cause harm.

Khashoggi’s case is part of a larger trend of increasingly restricted space for free expression in the MENA region

In our work, we continue to express concerns about the mounting severity of attacks, arrests, and convictions targeting journalists, bloggers, and human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In Saudi Arabia alone, the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s campaign to eradicate dissent in the Kingdom has led to numerous rounds of arrests and convictions targeting journalists, bloggers, and activists within the country.

In February, the acclaimed columnist Saleh al-Shehi was sentenced to five years in prison by a specialized criminal court for “insulting the royal court” after he publicly spoke out about corruption within the Kingdom. In June, Marwan al-Mureisi a well-known journalist for Sabq, a privately owned website, was arrested while visiting his five-year-old son in the hospital. While never explicitly critical of the regime, al-Mureisi refused to write articles commissioned by the government. He remains in custody with no information on the charges he faces nor his location. Women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathoul, a figure at the forefront of the opposition to the women’s driving ban in Saudi Arabia, has been imprisoned since May. In spite of the ban having been lifted the following month, al-Hathloul remains in detention, serving as an example of the high costs associated with challenging the agenda of the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is not the only culprit. The silencing of the media is a common practice across the region. Legal maneuvers such as “cybercrime” laws and tightly controlled media regulation, as well as the arrest and detention of bloggers and journalists across the MENA region, have extinguished critical voices in the name of state security.

In Egypt, Wael Abbas was arrested in February 2018 in connection to his posts on his blog “Misr Digital.” He is accused of publishing “fake news,” misusing social media and joining a terrorist group, making him one of the more than 30 journalists and bloggers currently imprisoned in Egypt.

In the United Arab Emirates in May, prominent human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined over $270,000 for his posts on Facebook and Twitter, which authorities determined to contain false information that posed a threat to national unity and social stability. Mansoor was also targeted via digital attacks, and worked with Canada’s Citizen Lab to protect Apple users from similar security threats.

What we describe here are only a few of the cases that show the alarming situation in the region, in which the vital work of journalists, bloggers, and activists is being undermined by their governments in the interest of keeping authoritarian governments in power.

Khashoggi’s last column for The Washington Post, published following his disappearance, expresses deep concern over this trend, insisting that what the MENA world needs most now is freedom of expression.

While he illustrates the repressive power of government regimes, the impact of false state narratives, and the cost of losing freedom, Khashoggi’s piece is also an important message about the need for a free press that can inform citizens, through creating an independent platform for MENA voices.

Khashoggi’s case, and the cases of the many others under attack in the region, should serve to fuel our resolve in defending and extending the right to freedom of expression. Access Now will continue to use our platform and work with international human rights bodies to call out the ongoing misuse of the judicial system to criminalize online expression, silence human rights defenders, and muzzle government critics.

The international community must act

There are ongoing opportunities for our global community to realize Khashoggi’s message.

RightsCon Tunis – hosted in Tunisia in recognition of its unique positioning as a young, free democracy within the region – can serve as a platform to highlight and further the work of those diligently defending human rights despite the heightened risk associated with doing so.

Access Now also held an event this week alongside U.N. General Assembly meetings, co-hosted by the U.N. missions of Poland and Austria, to highlight threats to the safety of journalists, and the role of states in protecting press freedom. David Kaye, the U.N.’s independent expert on the freedoms of expression and opinion, rightly labelled the Khashoggi murder a “moment of truth” for the international system, where lack of action or delay would only serve to justify cynicism and distrust in the United Nations and the many resolutions, initiatives, and plans to protect journalists. A joint investigation must immediately be formed – whether at the U.N. Secretary General, Security Council, or Human Rights Council’s initiative –  to examine and hold accountable Khashoggi’s murderers and those ordering and facilitating this atrocity.

Also at our convening in New York, BBC Persian journalist Rana Rahimpour detailed the horrors her family – and the families of fellow BBC Persia journalists – have been subjected to in their home country of Iran, including having their passports revoked and being forced to give grandparents final goodbyes via Skype. The journalists had lodged a first-ever complaint with the U.N. human rights office, leading to U.N. calls for Iran to end its campaign of intimidation.

In response, we underscored the need for greater control over the sale, export, and import of invasive surveillance technologies like NSO Group’s Pegasus, which has been used to target lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders, and their families and friends, across the world. We must bring these tools, and their developers and customers, out of the shadowsWe support the European Parliament’s resolution today on the Khashoggi killing, which condemns the murder, asks for an international impartial investigation, recognizes the importance of defending free expression online or off, and calls for “an embargo on the export of surveillance systems and other dual-use items that may be used in Saudi Arabia for the purposes of repression.”

We look forward to strengthening the upcoming U.N. General Assembly resolution on privacy in the digital age by calling out state-sponsored hacking and protecting encryption, as the Human Rights Council recently did, and by contributing to Special Rapporteur David Kaye’s upcoming report on technology for targeted surveillance.

We hope you join us in working to grow the movement to save free expression in MENA and across the globe.