In 2014, ISIS beheaded journalist Steven Sotloff in a graphic video in which he most likely had to forcibly say to the camera he was “paying the price” for the actions of the United States military. More recently, journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the a Saudi consulate due to orders from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. Khashoggis’s criticism of the Saudi government likely motivated his murder.
The termination of journalists while working in other countries, especially the Middle East, remains a cultural norm. According to a 2016 study in the New York Times, at least 1,195 journalists were killed 1992-2016 while only 13 percent of cases have undergone prosecution.
American journalists willfully go to war-torn zones and dangerous locations – they have the freedom to decide their career and where they choose to work. Thus, the culpability for journalists’ deaths may fall on the victims – after all, they chose to take the risk of reporting under hazardous conditions. Yes, the presidential administration mourns the death, acknowledges the tragedy – but ISIS continued to kill despite. And Saudi Arabia now has that same opportunity due to President Donald Trump’s choice not to take action against this economic ally.
Journalists provide freedoms to the United States absent from the countries in which they work – the freedom of information, of learning. Until the United States changes its precedence and retaliates against those who threaten these freedoms by killing journalists, free press and speech fears defamation. Journalists must acknowledge the risks they take, but when terrorist organizations and governments orchestrate the murder, the offense magnifies attitudes toward the United States as a whole. The death of a journalist is the death of a valuable, dignified human life, a viewpoint, a source for information, a catalyst of free speech.
Democrats and Republicans, such as Sen. Joni Ernst (R., Iowa), are both advocating for further action against Saudi Arabia. Nebraska’s Sen. Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) himself categorized Trump’s reaction about the murder “a very weak statement.” The United States cannot continue to accept other governments’ and terrorists’ threats to our citizens and their speech. Dissidence – while it presents an increased risk in many countries where journalists work – should not determine fate.
Setting a precedence of allowing dictators to get away with malicious affronts to the United States presents future threats to the First Amendment. Journalists serve as a privileged set of eyes into some of the world’s greatest atrocities. Perpetrators of these atrocities surely do not want journalists to make their crimes known – which only amplifies the need to protect and stand up for journalists. The United States has the opportunity to do so – whether or not we choose to seize it may affect the future of the American press.