By Dr Vishnu Bisram
On the disappearance or murder of well known Saudi journalist American resident Jamal Khashoggi, it would seem that the pen is mightier than the bullet or sword (hacksaw, choppers and knives, etc.). Or is it?
Clearly, a journalist has been silenced. His murder may send the wrong message – don’t mess with powerful authoritarian leaders? Or will the world act against dictators and send a message that there would be serious consequences for attacking or murdering journalists? Human rights as well as the freedom to publish are natural rights and people should not be silenced for practicing them.
Dictators or strong men rulers hate journalists. Many journalists are killed every year because they speak out against and expose injustice (human rights violations) perpetrated by government figures. Dictators see reporters, advocates for democracy, and human rights activists like myself as trouble makers. Reports say Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul at the behest of Saudi government officials. The truth is coming out and Saudi government is accepting responsibility as an operation that went wrong. Was it? Khashoggi was literally physically liquidated without a trace. His murder was gory and gruesome worse than what ISIS terrorists did to opponents in the Middle East. Turkish media reported on the ghastly details of the journalist being beheaded and cut into pieces. Pieces of his body were recently found.
We had our own experience in Guyana where reporters were killed or violently attacked as a routine policy during the period of the dictatorship; as is widely reported, the Burnham/Hoyte regimes identified opponents and dealt with them ruthlessly with incredible brutality. We all remember Father Bernard Darke and the many attacks against Father Andrew Morrison, Moses Nagamootoo, Lionel Peters, and Rickey Singh and so many others during the period of the Burnham/Hoyte dictatorships. Burnham openly defied the world in killing opponents including the great Walter Rodney and attempted to kidnap Clive Thomas. There was also the attempted murder of Dr. Josh Ramsammy and the framing of Dr. Rupert Roopnarine and Omowale. These were violent acts of defiance and Burnham knew he could get away with them because the US and UK were on his side against the left wing PPP and would look the other way. Had the US stood with Guyanese during this period, the dictator would have shivered in his boots should he mess with democratic activists.
Authoritarian regimes know how to silent courageous journalists and champions of democracy – maim them or terminate their employment or target their families or threaten them. But it does not have to be that way if the democratic world and the great powers stand with journalists. Dictators will shiver if powerful countries like US, UK, Canada, Germany and India take measures against rulers who attack journalists. Had the world stood with the reporters, Father Darke would not have been murdered, Dr. Josh Ramsammy would not have been shot, Dr. Rodney would not have been blown up to pieces, Minister Teekah would not have been murdered, Minister Shirley Field Ridley would not have been suddenly found dead, etc.
Authoritarian regimes see human rights champions Ohene Koama and Edward Dublin as terrorists. And as Kashoggi did, the written word, like what I am doing here, scares regimes and even some publishers who don’t want to publish controversial statements fear of being targeted or losing advertisement income from regimes. David Hinds and Lincoln Lewis are fresh in our minds losing their columns. But there must be a limit to how far a dictator or even a democrat would go to silence critics. Silencing critics, regardless of the method, is plain unacceptable. Killing or maiming citizens or silencing critics or firing journalists should have no place in a society. No matter what the writing, a journalist must not be murdered. Bad commentary or reporting is better than no reporting or no views at all. And his killing must be condemned by every media outlet and politicians. The US Congress, Stabroek News, and global journalists have condemned the brutal murder. There must be ongoing government international condemnation of what happened in Turkey even “if it was an interrogation that went awry” as the Saudis say. There should not have been an interrogation in the first place. No amount of money (not even $110B) should be used as a reason to avoid ostracizing killers or holding them to account. But sadly, the world is not coming out against killers of journalists like Khashoggi (except Turkey) and this kind of silence is sending a wrong message – it is an unambiguous message to all reporters that they will get you if you report on the bad things we do. Even Caribbean governments are silent.
Unless the world comes out against what happened to Khashoggi, dissidents will be discouraged on speaking out against abuses meted out to journalists and on to those like us who are championing human rights. Worse, journalists will not want to write on subjects that irritate officials.
One should not tie the life of a person on business consequences – losing exports if a government speaks out against rights abuses. Dictators also need business – they have goods to sell, not only arms to buy. Economic sanctions can be used as a weapon like what was done to South Africa during apartheid. Dictatorships have to sell their resources to buy products – so their behavior can be influenced – respect journalists and rights activists or else your products won’t be bought.
People like myself have firmly believed that foreign policy decisions are all about promoting national interest of a country but sanctioning murder or being silent to state murder can never be a foreign policy goal. One cannot stand by and allow people to be murdered. It was this type of American view of national interest that inhibited the US, UK and Canada from confronting the dictatorship in Guyana about killing opponents in the 1970s and 1980s.
Tough economic and military sanctions are required against dictators. Justice must be served when people are murdered. Whosoever gave the order to kill Jamal Khashoggi and whoever carried out the order must be brought to justice.
The US Congress acted against Russia on human rights violations. The same should be done against regimes that go after journalists and champions of human dignity.
The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.