Jamal Khashoggi, and the Thankless Life (and Death) of Journalists


Jamal Khashoggi, and the Thankless Life (and Death) of Journalists

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

On October 2, journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, and never walked out. The Washington Post reporter, a longtime critic of the monarchy in Saudi Arabia, was murdered inside the building, and nearly a month after the incident, Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s regime is still denying any culpability. It’s a stark reminder of how numb society has become when it comes to acts of violence against journalists engaged in one of the world’s most dangerous professions.

Yesterday, Time Magazine named Khashoggi, along with other journalists who faced persecution for their work, as their persons of the year in 2018, in an issue titled The Guardians and the War on Truth. The issue pays tribute to the many sacrifices and tribulations that journalists endure in their line of work, an ordeal that does not get its fair share of sympathy from the general public, which benefits from the fruits of their labours every day.

A man holds a poster of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a protest organized by members of the Turkish-Arabic Media Association at the entrance to Saudi Arabia’s consulate on October 8, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey.

Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Informing the public at the cost of their personal safety and liberty, journalists walk a razor’s edge every time they speak truth to power. Last year, a national panic broke out over the security of the Aadhaar database, and cursory Google search reveals evidence of large-scale mismanagement of data, painstakingly catalogued by independent and media house-backed journalists. At what cost was this information gathered? Rachna Khaira, the journalist for the Tribune who discovered the breach, briefly faced a criminal charge for forgery and other offences, liable to jail time of 30 years.

Neha Dixit reported on RSS workers assisting in child trafficking in 2016, and was consequently charged with criminal intent to cause disharmony among religious groups, an offence that can get her five years in prison. There are hundreds of instances where our journalists have received swift and bitter backlash for doing their job in the last few years. In 2017, India’s position on the Press Freedom Index dropped by three points – that is below Afghanistan and Myanmar, one a conflict zone and the other in the middle of a genocide.

This doesn’t mean we haven’t earned that low ranking. Under the reign of Narendra Modi, who in his four-year tenure has not held a single press conference, the PMO has no press advisor. Instead, there is a senior aide of the PM who stands at the central hall of parliament where earlier the press would meet with the ministers, taking down the names of BJP officials who speak to journalists. He doesn’t take press correspondents to his foreign trips, and chooses Twitter over traditional news outlets to broadcast information. Our government seems to consider the fourth pillar of democracy absolutely unnecessary, except as a means to broadcast their own ideologies. This climate of disrespect and disregard for the press is peaking globally, with Trump leading the pack (of course) with his inane comments about how “the press is the number one enemy of the people.”

When Gauri Lankesh was shot, my aspiring journalist friend’s mother told her to find a safer profession.

What effect does that have on ground? Just look at the murders of Gauri Lankesh and Shujaat Bukhari, who were killed by the same evil that struck down Khashoggi – the rising animosity toward the press by ruling administrations.

What’s worse than our increasing disregard for the freedom of press, is the fact that we continue to enjoy the benefits of a free press – but don’t want to sign up for the fight that is required to preserve it. We are able to hold all these elegant online debates, verify and counter-check different sources of information, and display all signs of awareness because we can take the media for granted.

The motto of Washington Post, the paper that Khashoggi wrote for, is “Democracy Dies In Darkness”. And indeed it does. It is not surprising that governments everywhere foster a darkness in their dealings when operating against the interests of the people. Indira Gandhi did it during the Emergency, Putin did it in Russia, Hitler did it in Germany. Every police state begins by curbing its media. The only difference now is, we, as sentient citizens, are content to wallow in this darkness.

Look no further than Khashoggi’s death. He is the subject of international outrage, but an outrage sadly without fire. Trump has declared that his death is just not worth taking the Saudis to task over and risking the US’ trade deals.  

In 2018, 60 journalists have been confirmed dead because of their job and 262 journalists have been imprisoned for doing their job in 2017 alone. Statistics though, are tricky things. These figures sound paltry, until you weigh them against how many engineers, doctors, or teachers die on the job. Army men do, and they get protection and benefits for risking their lives. But journalists’ deaths are hushed up, their bodies never found.

When Gauri Lankesh was shot, my aspiring journalist friend’s mother told her to find a safer profession. When I was working at a daily newspaper, an old editor asked me to quit and take my IAS examinations, because journalism is a thankless, bitter job. You’re poorly paid, hated by the government and the people – yet useful to everyone.

India has one of the largest and most expansive media networks, but back during our formative years, we were not taught about the press the way we are taught about the other pillars of democracy. There was no list of famous journalists like there were scientists or inventors.

We actively consume the products of journalism every single day, but we didn’t stir when the press continued to be muffled irrevocably. Perhaps it would do good to remember that no dystopia has a free press. It is in the interest of fundamentalist governments everywhere that we take our journalists for granted – so maybe it’s time we shouldn’t.