The U.S.—and the Western World—Needs to Decide Whether It Values JournalistsPhoto courtesy of Getty Politics Features Journalism
On Sunday, Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, ordered a commercial flight bound for Lithuania from Athens, Greece, to be escorted to the ground the minute it crossed Belarusian airspace. The justification was a “bomb threat,” but that was a cover for the real reason—Lukashenko knew that a 26-year-old Belarusian journalist named Roman Protasevich was on board. Protasevich had fled the country two years earlier, and was a vocal critic of Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime. He had been charged in absentia last November for “inciting public disorder and social hatred,” but continued to be a thorn in Lukashenko’s side. This was, in short, a kidnapping, and on Monday Protasevich was forced to release a video from captivity saying he was being treated with “maximum correctness.” Since he’s considered a terrorist in Belarus, he could face the death penalty.
This was the response from the Biden administration, through Secretary of State Antony Blinken:
We strongly condemn the Lukashenka regime’s brazen and shocking act to divert a commercial flight and arrest a journalist. We demand an international investigation and are coordinating with our partners on next steps. The United States stands with the people of Belarus.
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 23, 2021
It’s impossible to say what “coordinating with our partners on next steps” means, and this is undoubtedly complicated by the fact that Lukashenko is an ally of Vladimir Putin, but even putting consequences and alliances aside, it’s not clear that the U.S. has any ground to stand on here.
In October 2018, the Saudi Arabian crown prince ordered the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul—that’s the conclusion reached by the CIA. Khashoggi was strangled, dismembered with a bone saw, and likely dissolved in acid because he had the temerity to criticize the Saudi royal family, particularly in the Washington Post and on American and British television.
What was the American response at the time? Equivocation, mostly from Donald Trump himself, who said things like, “”it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” and, “in any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The Senate passed a resolution demanding an end to U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen, but Trump vetoed it, and the veto was upheld.
It’s one thing for the response to be unsatisfactory during the Trump regime—Trump famously despised journalists in his own country and stoked hatred of the profession among his supporters—but what happened when Biden took over, with a Democratic House and split Senate? He declared the crown prince exempt from any punishment. That was a major change from his campaign rhetoric, where he spoke of intending to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.”
The lesson here is obvious—if you’re sufficiently entangled with the U.S. in military and economic matters, Democrats and Republicans will largely look the other way if you murder an unfriendly journalist. And if they’re not going to do anything about Khashoggi, they’re certainly not going to intervene in Belarus.
Which isn’t to say they should, necessarily. Starting World War III over the strange case of Protasevich would be unwise, and wouldn’t solve the core issue. But meaningless rhetoric, backed up by a history of inaction among allies, isn’t the answer either. Something more dynamic is required, especially at a time when journalists are increasingly serving as punching bags for the American right, and violence or threats of violence are becoming regular occurrences. Each time the U.S. ignores an incident like Khashoggi or Protasevich, they’re sending a message—wittingly or unwittingly—to their own people as to the relative value of journalists, and the acceptability of scapegoating them in occasionally dangerous ways.
Violence against journalists is certainly nothing new in world history, but it does feel like there’s a phenomenon of diminished respect for the profession in the western world, and that doesn’t feel like an accident. Journalism and capitalism are incompatible in some sense, despite their current uneasy co-existence. From a pragmatic capitalistic perspective, the root of what journalists do is to reduce the power and profit of wealthy people by virtue of investigating the inner workings of the systems we live in and publicizing the immoral machinations we’re not supposed to see. Capitalism wants the veneer of respectability—it wants fake, friendly journalists—but deep down it doesn’t want real criticism, because real criticism hurts the bottom line. (Jeff Bezos owning the Washington Post is the perfect illustration of this dynamic.) In authoritarian countries, where pure power is unchecked, this results in heavy-handed censorship, jail and sometimes death. In places like America, it results in the gradual erosion of the dignity of the work, aided by decisions like the blatant inaction against Saudi Arabia and the empty rhetoric toward Belarus.
In most cases in the U.S., it’s probably not a conscious or systematic decision to undermine journalists, just an inevitable one when two opposing forces meet and one—capital—is far more powerful than the other. The whole thing has a chilling effect, because in a country where investigative journalism is devalued, under-appreciated, and even demonized by some, where’s the incentive to make this your life’s work? Or, if it’s already your life’s work, where’s the incentive to do the kind of hard, valuable, in-depth dirt-digging that may not even be read by many people and could bring you all kinds of trouble, including from editors who may censor the work due to conflicts with capital?
There may be a way to reverse this, slowly and over time, but it won’t happen unless there’s a sea change in the major and minor ways our government and our society view journalism. And of course, journalists have accountability here too; chasing clicks for money or adhering to a company line or refusing to allocate resources to quality stories has a way of diminishing the profession and making the problem worse. But that’s a symptom, where the attitude of governments to individual acts of journalism is more like the root cause. To turn the other way when journalists are murdered, and to attack the press on home soil, if only with rhetoric, contributes to a climate of gradual sabotage. Continue down this road, and you’ll have fewer quality journalists with each passing year, and the ones who do exist won’t be as good. It’s a path to sure extinction, and only an active choice in the opposite direction can undo the damage.