The Biden administration’s weasel words on press freedom

Yesterday, President Biden and his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, spoke in front of reporters in the Oval Office. Or, more accurately, López Obrador spoke, going on for thirty-one minutes about everything from migration to gas prices to lithium nationalization; Biden struggled to get a word in edgewise. López Obrador did not find time to mention another major crisis facing his country: the twelve reporters who have been killed there already this year, making Mexico the most dangerous country in the world for journalists that isn’t a war zone. A regular press-basher, López Obrador has been widely criticized for his response to these killings, but Biden, when he did speak, didn’t publicly push on it. He did find time to criticize “overhyped headlines” about his relationship with López Obrador and to praise a “lovely lady” journalist from Mexico for holding a camera steady as López Obrador rattled on.

It’s not uncommon for US leaders to skirt press-freedom issues in choreographed encounters with foreign counterparts with questionable records in that area. But the state of threat facing Mexican journalists is hardly a faraway issue: two of the reporters killed so far this year died in Tijuana, just across the border from San Diego; in the past, Mexican journalists killed close to the US border have covered it, or lived and worked on both sides of it. And, more broadly, press freedom is uncommonly front of mind in US foreign affairs right now. Last night, Biden took off for his first presidential trip to the Middle East, where he plans to visit Israel, the occupied West Bank, and Saudi Arabia. He plans to focus on regional stability—and oil. But, as a slew of headlines in various countries have noted in recent days, the trip risks being overshadowed by the killings of two journalists, in particular—one recent, the other dating to before Biden’s time in office, both of considerable relevance to his administration and the US.

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Shireen Abu Akleh, a prominent journalist for Al Jazeera, was killed in May while reporting on an Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin. She was a US citizen. After her death, eyewitness accounts and investigations by several major international news organizations and the United Nations concluded that she was shot by an Israeli soldier; CNN even suggested that she had been targeted. Israel has continued to insist that Abu Akleh was killed by a Palestinian gunman or in Israeli crossfire in a gunfight, despite evidence suggesting that no militants were in her immediate vicinity when she was killed. Various US politicians called on the Biden administration to help lead an independent investigation. Over the July 4 holiday, the State Department said, in a 193-word statement, that officials had overseen an independent forensic analysis of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh, which Palestinian officials handed over after initially refusing to do so. That analysis was inconclusive because the bullet was damaged. The State Department said that it had also been granted “full access” to official Israeli and Palestinian investigations. It drew on those to conclude, in strikingly vague and passive language, that while “gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh,” US officials had “no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances” during the Jenin raid.

Yesterday, four Democratic US senators, including Dick Durbin, the majority whip, wrote to Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, criticizing the State Department’s findings, arguing that they do not constitute the “independent, credible investigation” for which Blinken himself called, accusing the Biden administration of a lack of transparency, and laying out thirteen further questions. Meanwhile, various commentators demanded that Biden raise Abu Akleh’s killing on his visit to Israel. Abu Akleh’s family, for their part, wrote Biden a furious letter in which they characterized the US response as “abject” and demanded that Biden meet with them on his trip.

Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and columnist for the Washington Post, was assassinated by agents of the Saudi state at the country’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018. He was a US permanent resident. Shortly after taking office last year, the Biden administration published a US intelligence assessment concluding that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally approved Khashoggi’s murder. Biden sanctioned various Saudis, but not MBS himself, for explicit reasons of realpolitik. By now visiting the country, critics charge, Biden is not only letting MBS off the hook but actively facilitating his return to international respectability, as Fred Ryan, the publisher of the Post, put it this week in an excoriating op-ed topped with a drawing of Biden shaking a bloodied hand. In a video message, meanwhile, Hatice Cengiz, Khashoggi’s fiancée, told Biden that, by agreeing to meet with MBS, he is “dishonoring yourself and Jamal.”

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The cases of Abu Akleh and Khashoggi are interwoven in more ways than their shared US ties and tragic fates—in various ways, they feed directly into the shifting regional balance of power, not least the deepening ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, that is ostensibly the central concern of Biden’s trip. As Le Monde noted yesterday, around the time of Khashoggi’s killing devices belonging to people close to him were targeted with Pegasus—a potent spyware tool engineered by an Israeli firm with close ties to the Israeli government; investigations last year found that the Saudi regime was blocked from using Pegasus after Khashoggi’s killing, but had its access restored after the Israeli government intervened. (The Biden administration has formally blacklisted NSO Group, the company that makes Pegasus. This week, the New York Times reported that US spooks nonetheless encouraged a US defense contractor to try to acquire NSO; the White House said that it didn’t approve of this.) Meanwhile, as Yasmine Farouk points out in the Times today, if Biden doesn’t express outrage to the Israelis about Abu Akleh’s killing, it will become easier for Saudi officials to dismiss US outrage over Khashoggi as so much hypocrisy.

Biden’s team has said that he will raise human rights with the Saudis on his trip, and he has said himself that “fundamental freedoms” will also be on the table in Israel and the West Bank. But he has not, as far as I can see, confirmed that he will raise the cases of Khashoggi or Abu Akleh specifically, and it would seem that MBS, in particular, is not anticipating a lecture about it; when Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, raised Khashoggi with MBS last year, MBS reportedly yelled at him and said he never wanted to discuss the matter again. Over the weekend, Biden took the unusual step of defending his Saudi trip in an op-ed for the Post; he insisted that he has a responsibility to engage directly with partners in the US national interest, echoing a broader administration line that the world, unfortunately, isn’t always a nice place. Biden mentioned Khashoggi by name only once—to give himself credit for releasing the intelligence report last year—and MBS not at all. Biden has said separately that he won’t actually be meeting with MBS on his Saudi trip; rather, “I’m going to an international meeting and he’s going to be a part of it.” When is a meeting not a meeting? When it’s morally jarring, apparently.

Demanding that Biden hold world leaders to account on questions of human rights and press freedom isn’t simply an abstract exercise in the projection of values, though that alone would be welcome. It’s also about holding Biden accountable for his own words and actions. He has actively made the defense of democracy overseas a core plank of his foreign policy, and press freedom is a core plank of democracy; more specifically, he pledged, during the presidential campaign, to treat Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s killing. Diplomacy is a messy and morally compromising business, sometimes unavoidably so, but it’s a journalist’s responsibility to always scrutinize moral compromises—or, at the very least, not to simply swallow patronizing bromides about this being the way the world works when those saying as much have argued clearly in the past that the world shouldn’t work this way. It’s been gratifying, on such terms, to see scrutiny of Biden’s trip filtered through a press-freedom lens in no few recent news stories and op-eds.

In his particularly sharp column, Ryan argued that Biden cast Saudi Arabia as a pariah, then went back on himself, for electoral reasons: he wanted to project moral standing during the Democratic primaries, whereas his interests now lie in lowering gas prices ahead of the midterms by pushing the Saudis on oil production. In a news cycle that itself is prematurely saturated with election chatter—not only about the midterms, but about Biden’s chances in 2024—we should ourselves take care not to get distracted from holding the president to his promises as a matter of governance, which is ultimately what elections are all about. Biden failed to raise the plight of journalists with López Obrador yesterday, at least in their public meeting, without the press seeming to notice. He now has a chance to do better in Israel and Saudi Arabia. This time, we’re watching.

Below, more on press freedom in the Middle East and Mexico:

  • Rhodes trip: Writing for The Atlantic, Ben Rhodes, a former senior foreign-policy adviser to President Obama, took Biden to task for his Saudi trip; Biden’s rationale for going is understandable, Rhodes writes, and the US certainly needs to engage the Saudis, but it also gets to set the terms of that engagement. Ultimately, “rationalizations perpetuate a debilitating and cynical status quo,” he writes. “Visiting MBS is wrong. And while we contort ourselves to embrace the Saudi leadership in the name of shared interests, recent history should show us that those interests are not aligned.”
  • A pattern: Last week, Haya Abushkhaidem wrote, for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, that Abu Akleh’s killing should not be viewed as an isolated incident. “At least 30 journalists have been killed by the Israeli security forces since 2000. Some of these journalists were foreigners, including Italian AP journalist Simone Camilli and British cameraman and filmmaker James Miller. But most of them were Palestinian like Shireen,” Abushkhaidem writes. “In addition to assassinations, Palestinian journalists have long been subjected to various forms of human rights violations by the Israeli government, such as arrests, destruction of equipment and physical attacks.”
  • Iran: Iran will also be high on the agenda as Biden visits the Middle East, and there, too, freedom of expression is under fresh assault. In the past week, authorities in the country have arrested three filmmakers: Mohammad Rasoulof, Mostafa Aleahmad, and Jafar Panahi; Rasoulof and Aleahmad had reportedly signed a letter calling on security forces to lay down their weapons amid protests that followed the collapse of a building in the country, while Panahi was reportedly detained when he went to a prosecutor’s office to check on Rasoulof. CNN’s Kareem El Damanhoury and Tara John have more.
  • Mexico: In April, CJR’s Paroma Soni went deep on the rash of journalist murders in Mexico to that point this year. “In 2021, Mexico was the second-deadliest country in the world for journalists, after India,” she wrote. “Since the late 1990s, 153 journalists have been murdered and another 29 ‘disappeared.’ In just the first three months of 2022, another 9 journalists were murdered—the same number that were killed in all of 2021.”


Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, the House committee investigating January 6 held its seventh televised hearing, laying out how a Trump tweet galvanized extremists and revealing that Trump considered advertising a march on the Capitol even more explicitly, but held off because he wanted it to seem spontaneous; the committee also heard testimony from a former Oath Keepers spokesperson who is now a critic of the group, as well as from a January 6 defendant, while Liz Cheney, the panel’s vice chair, suggested that Trump personally tried to interfere with one of its witnesses. The committee’s next hearing had reportedly been planned for tomorrow, but it is now expected to take place next Thursday in prime time and to be the final televised session, at least for now. (Oh, and if you haven’t yet watched John Bolton discussing yesterday’s hearing on CNN, you really should.)
  • Also yesterday, the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE obtained surveillance and body-camera footage from inside the Uvalde elementary school where a gunman killed nineteen children and two teachers in May, showing the shooter entering a classroom and law enforcement officers then waiting for over an hour in a corridor outside. The Statesman published the full video and a four-minute version. It edited out the children’s screams, considering those to be “too graphic.” The paper’s editor defended its decision to publish on grounds of truth and transparency amid official opacity, but some victims’ relatives and local leaders were outraged. State lawmakers had reportedly planned to show the footage to victims’ families this weekend, before releasing it to the public.
  • After saying that it would sue Elon Musk to force him to follow through on his acquisition of Twitter, Twitter sued Elon Musk to force him to follow through on his acquisition of Twitter (or at least pay a breakup fee); Musk has tried to back out, claiming, among other things, that Twitter has not been forthcoming about fake accounts on the platform, but Twitter says that Musk is only reneging because the deal “no longer serves his personal interests.” In other tech-platform news, Google has reportedly offered to reform its advertising business as it bids to avoid being forced to sell off assets as federal antitrust regulators circle. And Spotify acquired Heardle, which is like Wordle but for songs.
  • The Post’s Ben Strauss profiled Adam Schefter, ESPN’s NFL scoop machine. “If big-city columnists or Sports Illustrated feature writers used to be the most prominent jobs in sports media, now it is the insider,” Strauss writes. “Schefter has ascended to the heights of the job. But he also has repeatedly demonstrated its pitfalls.” Meanwhile, Matthew Berry, ESPN’s fantasy-sports guru, announced that he is leaving the network. His exit, CNN reports, marks “the end of an era at ESPN. Fantasy sports is a lucrative business for the network, and Berry was, in many ways, the face of that enterprise.”
  • A new series of Embedded, a deep-dive narrative podcast from NPR, will launch tomorrow; it will tell the story of police-reform efforts in Yonkers, New York, across four episodes, in partnership with the Marshall Project. (I wrote about a prior series of Embedded, focused on the Capital Gazette newsroom shooting, last year.) In other media-collaboration news, Rewire News Group partnered with Mother Jones to launch a new project focused on the future of reproductive rights following the overturning of Roe.
  • In media-jobs news, Ev Williams is stepping down as CEO of the publishing platform Medium after ten years in the role; Tony Stubblebine, the CEO of an online coaching company, will replace him. Elsewhere, Jen Chung, a cofounder of Gothamist, is leaving the site. And Vin Gupta—a prolific medical pundit on cable news who was rumored to be in the running for a top role at the Food and Drug Administration—ruled himself out.
  • In media-labor news, the union representing staffers at Wired magazine, which is owned by Condé Nast, reached agreement on a contract after months of bargaining, averting a strike planned for this week. Elsewhere, the union representing staffers at ABC News recently ratified a new contract with the Writers Guild of America, East. And employees of the company that produces PBS NewsHour announced their intention to unionize.
  • The Nation’s Kevin Lozano reviewed a new memoir by a former editor at Vanity Fair, and reflected on the decline and fall of the glossy. Such magazines “are relics of a vanished era of prosperity when their pages were bloated with ads and their editors in chief served as the feudal lords of competing fiefs,” Lozano writes. “Today, when someone narrates the story of this heyday, it is hard not to feel like you’re reading an obituary.”
  • And with Where the Crawdads Sing, a movie based on the 2018 novel of the same name, set for release this week, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, revisited his wild past reporting on Delia Owens, the novel’s author, and her family’s conservation work in Africa. Police in Zambia still want to question Owens in the case of an alleged poacher whose murder was caught on tape by ABC News in the nineties. Read on here.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: President Joe Biden boards Air Force One for a trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. (AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)