Activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi hold a candlelight vigil outside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. File picture: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo.
The gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul has shaken the world.

The House of Saud, long protected by its close relationships with Israel and the US, has been subject to unprecedented international criticism.

The murder and dismemberment of Khashoggi was a shocking violation of Islamic Law and norms and it has also turned Muslim opinion against the House of Saud.

Khashoggi was a journalist, and a courageous critic of authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia. In an article published after his death he argued that while “The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011”, those hopes have been dashed.

Today, only Tunisia is considered to have a free media and, as a result, people living in “Arab countries are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative”.

State control over the media, and repression of independent voices, is not unique to the Arab world. 

Media freedom is also constrained and repressed in countries such as Zambia and Russia.

Those of us old enough to remember apartheid will never forget our own dark days of censorship and the courageous journalists like Thandeka Gqubule, Anton Harber and many others who challenged repression.

During the Zuma period, surveillance of journalists was common and there was a massive surge in fake news. 

Despite this, journalists in South Africa still enjoy media freedom and journalists are not killed for exposing state actors and corruption.

With the defeat of the Zuma faction within the ANC things have much improved. There is no longer talk of attempts to regulate and control the media by the state.

But in today’s world, a free and open public sphere is not only poisoned by the heavy and obvious hand of state regulation. In countries like Russia, America, India and Brazil the far right drives its agenda through spreading fake news on social media.

The collapse of the financial viability of the newspaper in the wake of the internet, which allows Google and Facebook to claim the lion’s share of advertising revenue, is a key reason for the rise of right-wing populism across the globe.

We now know that much of this was funded by the Guptas and, like Andile Mngxitama’s “Black Opinion” site, developed by Bell-Pottinger. This certainly contaminated our media space.

The EFF continues to operate in a similar anti-democratic fashion. Any journalist who has taken them on knows this very well. Critique is not met with rational debate. It is met with an avalanche of online abuse.

But, of course, it is also vital the media take every possible step to protect its own integrity. What is clear is that if the media does not conduct itself with absolute integrity these kinds of perceptions will flourish and vital sectors in society, like civil society and trade unions, will continue to lose confidence in the media.

In a context such as ours, we can only shudder to think about the implications of curtailed media freedom in South Africa. The death of Khashoggi is a timely reminder that his death is not in vain. This courageous journalist stood up to Saudi tyranny.

In the past year alone, 80 journalists have been killed; with state involvement in many.

And, ironically, as Turkey calls for justice we are forced to think about the repression that journalists face in Turkey, too - Reporters without Borders labels the “world’s biggest prison for professional journalists”.

In a society where trade is often prioritised over human rights and press freedom, we should be very concerned.

In South Africa, we celebrate the fact that media and civil society remain central pivots in our democracy. An attack on press freedom is not just an attack on human rights. And, it is certainly not a matter that is solely of concern to the middle class. On the contrary, it is also an attack on the material interests of the poor.

If tenderpreneurs and their theft and shoddy work are not exposed in the media, the plunder of the public purse will continue unabated. And, without press freedom, corruption will remain the greatest threat to our nation.

Khashoggi has reminded us about the important role that the media has to play.

* Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at Auwal Socio-Economic Research Institute, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN and academic director of a university study abroad programme on political transformation.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.