T here is a special circle of hell reserved for journalists who “shame” their countries in the foreign press. While authoritarian leaders are not surprised — albeit very irritated — by the international journalists doing the same thing, the ones they share a homeland with provoke a special brand of ire and resentment.
For these leaders, absolute control over the information that crosses their country’s borders is essential. In his last column, published Wednesday in The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi emphasized that the government of Saudi Arabia and other authoritarian Arab governments’ “very existence relies on the control of information.”
It’s easy to control the message closer to home. Local news outlets who dare step out of the official government line are much easier to discipline. If the government can’t shut them down entirely or apply pressure on the publishers to censor the journalists in question, then they call them out in public speeches and slap familiar labels on them. These “traitors and foreign agents” criticize the government because they are indifferent to patriotism and love of country, the leaders explain, and therefore can’t acknowledge all the good being done. To make sure the message hits home, the authorities have pro-government outlets and tabloids flood the public sphere with disparaging stories about journalists’ private lives, attacking both their work and their character. They condition the public to distrust these journalists, reinforcing their hegemonic control over the country.
This isn’t something the foreign public picks up on, because of the swift manner in which these governments react, but more importantly because they don’t speak the local language. Unless a pesky international journalist or media advocacy organization ends up covering an incident of press freedoms being violated, the leader can rest assured that his carefully constructed image has been preserved abroad.
But when one of his own manages to wrangle free and write about corruption, nepotism, and the generally oppressive nature of the government in a foreign outlet, one that is beyond the government’s control and read by millions of people all over the world, the leader’s hands are tied. They can’t go to UN summits or speak at conferences and keep pretending everything is OK. It’s like when an abused child tells the neighbors that he is being mistreated by an overbearing parent. The parent has hoped to keep his or her behavior limited to the confines of their home, but now everyone knows because the child told. And everyone believes the child. The child was there.
We should resist the orientalist urge to write off the Khashoggi murder as a symptom of the Middle East. With increasingly authoritarian parties and politicians on the rise in Europe, similar behavior has been witnessed in countries like the Czech Republic and Serbia. President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia is seen as a reformer in most European capitals, yet his country fell by 10 spots in the Reporters Without Borders index; calling out journalists and news outlets during public addresses has become his favorite sport. President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic infamously displayed a dummy assault rifle at a press conference, with the words “For Journalists” inscribed on the side. The journalists in these countries work under increasingly difficult conditions and face more and more challenges when trying to draw attention to the disrespect and harassment they face at home.
Trump-style media attacks have become customary in Slovakia and Poland. Slovak journalists are still recovering from the murders of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnírov, in February, while their prime minister has called “some journalists . . . dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes.” Whenever there is something wrong with the way a country is governed — sanctions being imposed, a ruling party being criticized, a policy being skewered by foreign press — the local journalists are held to blame for misrepresenting that country. The inability of these politicians to accept any form of criticism or dissent has seen the largest drop in press freedoms in Europe in the past year, according to the RWB, even though it generally remains one of the safest areas for journalists to practice their profession.
Journalists who have managed to hold their governments accountable for their actions internationally have helped break the cycle of propaganda in their countries, create international solidarity networks, and highlight regressive social policies before they cause irreversible damage — which is usually when the foreign press starts paying attention. For the journalists themselves, it means they will always be seen as the ultimate enemies of the state by their repressive governments.
Una Hajdari is the 2018 Elizabeth Neuffer Fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.