The murder of Jamal Khashoggi is not an isolated incident. It is part of a worldwide concerted effort by criminals threatened by exposure; power-hungry politicians frightened of truth and criticism and ideologues seeking to manipulate public opinion.
Khashoggi hit the headlines because he was murdered by agents of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes who is also supported by countries who claim freedom of speech as a bedrock of their system of government.
A total of 46 journalists around the world were killed in 2017. Two-thirds were murder victims. More than 2,500 have been killed since 1990. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 262 journalists languished in the world’s prisons at the end of 2017. Turkey—whose president is taking the lead in condemning Saudi Arabia—leads the pack with 73 journalists behind bars.
We tend to think of freedom of speech as a product of the Age of Enlightenment. Yes and no. It was a key element in The Golden Age of Athens and was enshrined in Roman law. In common with most laws and freedoms, freedom of speech dwindled to the point of extinction in the Middle Ages. It was revived in the 17th century. Leading the way was English poet, philosopher and statesman John Milton who passionately argued for the right to seek information and ideas, receive information and ideas and impart information and ideas.
By 1689 Freedom of Speech was enshrined in the English Bill of Rights. It was the First Amendment in the US constitution along with freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and the freedom to petition the government. Freedom of Speech was declared an inalienable right in the French Revolution’s Rights of Man. The protection of free speech can be found in almost every written constitution as well as in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and EU Law.
Freedom of speech is universally recognized as an essential prerequisite for successful democracies. For a democracy to work, you need an informed electorate. For the electorate to be informed you require freedom of speech and press.
Free speech also acts as a valuable safety valve protecting political stability. If people are able to express their concerns, problem, and grievances on the public stage for all to hear and consider that they are less likely to turn to violent revolution.
Finally, freedom of speech is more than a political tool. It provides essential grease for the wheels of commerce and science. The media is an important vehicle for exchanging business ideas and scientific knowledge. It is no coincidence that the countries where freedom of speech is strongest are—for the most part—the most stable and economically advanced in the world.
Freedom of speech is one of the basic liberties for which millions have fought and died.
Despite adherence to this long-held and well established basic freedom, the overall Western reaction to the Saudi regime’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi has been – at best—qualified. The reason is simple. Money. Saudi oil and Saudi cash have bought them immunity from anything but muted criticism.
Hundreds of thousands of jobs in America, Europe and elsewhere, are tied to Saudi money. The world needs Saudi oil. The West needs Saudi Arabia as a counter to the rise of Jihadist Iran and as a partner in the search to a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The murder of Khashoggi has underscored the sticky problem of principles clashing with Realpolitik.
The Bible, as usual, has an appropriate passage. Matthew, Chapter 16 verse 26 asks: “What is a man profited if he shall gain the world and lose his own soul?”
In my own book, principles win. The Saudi regime and everyone who seeks to undermine the principle of free speech are the true “Enemies of the People.”