In 2018, the brutal murder and dismemberment of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi became the most noted example of the extraordinary perils many media members face.
Tragically, Khashoggi's killing was hardly unique: A growing global attack on journalists — and by extension the truth — has claimed more than 2,658 lives over the last 30 years, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Scores more have been jailed, or assaulted, or been threatened or harassed.
Republican and Democratic presidents alike long defended a free press at home and abroad. Former President Donald Trump disgracefully did not, ceding America's moral authority by demonizing news media members with the Stalin-era terms "enemy of the people" and "fake news."
America needs to reclaim the high ground. President Joe Biden realizes that and recently told the State Department that "a free press isn't an adversary; rather, it's essential." It's also encouraging that legislation has been introduced to confirm the commitment to global press freedom: the Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act, offered in the Senate by Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont and in the House by California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff.
The legislation aims to "ensure governments that commit human rights abuses against journalists are held accountable by the United States," according to a statement from Klobuchar's office.
The law would build upon the Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act (named after the Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped and beheaded by terrorists in Pakistan) by requiring the State Department to document in its annual human rights reports instances of electronic surveillance and online harassment, to impose targeted sanctions against those deemed responsible for a gross human rights violation against a journalist, and to restrict foreign aid to governments in the event that a senior official commits such acts.
This bill has the backing of organizations such as the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders, PEN America, Freedom House and others.
"The United States' commitment to the protection of journalists and the promotion of press freedom internationally is critical given its prominent role on the world stage," Reporters Without Borders USA Executive Director Anna K. Nelson said in a statement. (A separate bill, the Global Press Freedom Act, which among other measures would create an ambassador-at-large for press freedom, also is building broad support.)
Indeed, "America has always been seen as a beacon of freedom across the world," Klobuchar told an editorial writer. The proposed legislation "is about standing up for American journalists and foreign journalists all across the world and placing our democratic values in the center of our foreign policy and making sure crimes against journalists don't go unanswered."
Biden may have the responsibility to answer even before Klobuchar's laudable legislation gets passed, ideally with the bipartisan backing it deserves. This week the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is expected to release a report on Khashoggi's killing that may directly implicate Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. U.S.-Saudi relations, already near a nadir, may be driven lower. But the higher aspirations of our democratic model must be reasserted, and a strong Washington response, including passing the Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act, is needed.