Freedom of Expression – Jamal Khashoggi

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  First Amendment, 1789. 

Wow our first amendment is a blockbuster as in one sentence.  It  provides religious freedoms, free speech and freedom to assembly, all in one short sentence.

I consider free speech and the right to  assembly (protest in masses) to be at the core of our democracy.    From these rights, hopefully come an informed populace, who can  vote in the leaders they want, and get rid of those they don’t want.

The apparent murder of  Jamal Khashoggi shows just how far Saudi Arabia will go to silence journalists.    Jamal Khashoggi could have stayed in Saudi Arabia, and reported on how wonderful the  decisions made by the new crown prince,  Mohammed bin Salman.  But, Khashoggi couldn’t do that.  Of course, Salman lost, as other journalists will fill the void.

The Crown Prince was concentrating power.  Saudi Arabia was becoming more autocratic under Salman.  Khashoggi wrote commentary for the Washington Post. shortly before he was murdered entitled,  “What the Arab world needs most is free expression.”

A note from Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor.  Washington Post. 

I received this column from Jamal Khashoggi’s translator and assistant the day after Jamal was reported missing in Istanbul. The Post held off publishing it because we hoped Jamal would come back to us so that he and I could edit it together. Now I have to accept: That is not going to happen. This is the last piece of his I will edit for The Post. This column perfectly captures his commitment and passion for freedom in the Arab world. A freedom he apparently gave his life for. I will be forever grateful he chose The Post as his final journalistic home one year ago and gave us the chance to work together.

What the Arab world needs most is free expression,  Jamal Khashoggi, October 17, 2018

I was recently online looking at the 2018 “Freedom in the World” report published by Freedom House and came to a grave realization. There is only one country in the Arab world that has been classified as “free.” That nation is Tunisia. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait come second, with a classification of “partly free.” The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as “not free.”

As a result, Arabs living in these 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. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.

The Arab world was ripe with hope during the spring of 2011. Journalists, academics and the general population were brimming with expectations of a bright and free Arab society within their respective countries. They expected to be emancipated from the hegemony of their governments and the consistent interventions and censorship of information. These expectations were quickly shattered; these societies either fell back to the old status quo or faced even harsher conditions than before.

My dear friend, the prominent Saudi writer Saleh al-Shehi, wrote one of the most famous columns ever published in the Saudi press. He unfortunately is now serving an unwarranted five-year prison sentence for supposed comments contrary to the Saudi establishment. The Egyptian government’s seizure of the entire print run of a newspaper, al-Masry al Youm, did not enrage or provoke a reaction from colleagues. These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.

As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate. There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet. They have also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications.

There are a few oases that continue to embody the spirit of the Arab Spring. Qatar’s government continues to support international news coverage, in contrast to its neighbors’ efforts to uphold the control of information to support the “old Arab order.” Even in Tunisia and Kuwait, where the press is considered at least “partly free,” the media focuses on domestic issues but not issues faced by the greater Arab world. They are hesitant to provide a platform for journalists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. Even Lebanon, the Arab world’s crown jewel when it comes to press freedom, has fallen victim to the polarization and influence of pro-Iran Hezbollah.

The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the hope of freedom. Arabs need something similar. In 1967, the New York Times and The Post took joint ownership of the International Herald Tribune newspaper, which went on to become a platform for voices from around the world.

My publication, The Post, has taken the initiative to translate many of my pieces and publish them in Arabic. For that, I am grateful. Arabs need to read in their own language so they can understand and discuss the various aspects and complications of democracy in the United States and the West. If an Egyptian reads an article exposing the actual cost of a construction project in Washington, then he or she would be able to better understand the implications of similar projects in his or her community.

The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.

I think the media is obsessed with the details of Khashoggi’s death and the ramifications with US-Saudi Arabia relationship.  It would be much better to pay some attention to why the Crown Prince wanted Khashoggi dead.   Basic civil liberties, free expression and assembly becomes the enemy to autocratic leaders. Khashoggi was exposing nearly the entire Arab world to the suppression of news.   Salman joined with  UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, demanding Qatar  shut down Al Jazeera  broadcast network,  because of its open editorial policy.

The Trump administration is unfortunately not helping the situation.   In fact, Trump’s offhand comments on the “disappearance” of Khashoggi,  were horrible –  values are good, but cash counts, and the Saudi’s have a lot of cash to buy military equipment, around 110 billion dollars in contracts.  This was a reference to Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, with the signing of Memorandum of Understanding,  not real purchase agreements.  In the world of Trump, we should be mindful of the consequences if we “defriend”  Salman, by way of sanctions.    But our values should never be for sale.

The First Amendment is what gave Jamal Khashoggi, CNN,  Washington Post, and yes Fox News the absolute right to say what they believe.

I would suggest reading the 2018 Freedom of the World Report under the links.

Stay tuned,



2018 Freedom of the World Report

Wikipedia:  Al Jazeera    (I really hope one day Al Jazeera America returns, as their news reporting was excellent)

My prior blogs commented on the blockade of Qatar by neighboring Arab countries and the demand to shut down Al Jazeera. Trump seemed to support this, on the basis that Qatar was supporting terrorism, and had a friendly relation with Iran.

Wikipedia:  Jamal Khashoggi 




Religious freedom burdens

This stuff gets pretty long, but hang in there.  “Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,”    is often attributed to Einstein,  although nobody can really agree who said it.   “Things can be as simple as you want, as long as you say it is just your opinion”  is what I believe in.   I am not giving the whole story, only the bits and pieces I think are important.  So be it.

A case involving Obamacare and religious freedoms has now been accepted to be heard in the Supreme Court.  A similar case has already been decided.  You can call these cases  ACA I and ACA II, where ACA 1  is the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby case   ACA II is the Little Sisters of the Poor v.  Burwell case.   These challenges are based on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) cases which can be pronounced  reef-rah if you want to impress folks.

It started with the First amendment, enacted in 1791. The first 16 words of the amendment are, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Laws are passed by Congress rarely directly  prohibit normal religious exercise.  The Fourteenth Amendment made certain that no State or local government could pass laws prohibiting the free exercise of religion.  If a local government passes a law specifically against a practice of a religion, then it can be held unconstitutional, as occurred in the “Santeria” case

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 1993 (pre RFRA)

But this case is the exception.  Local communities pass to prohibit other practices or activities, which causes a burden or conflict with  religious groups beliefs or practices.  For example, let us say that your religion requires smoking pot, and the government passes a law against smoking  marijuana, have they violated your right to religion?  Hypothetically, let’s say there’s a noise limitation rule in a community, and early Sunday morning, a Church wants to blast gospel music from their lound speakers.   Does this rule impose a burden on free exercise of religion?

Suppose,  you belong to an Indian tribe, which ingests peyote buttons in religious rituals, and then got fired from your job, when tested for drugs- has the government made your practice of religion more difficult?  This is  “Employment Div. v. Smith” Case. The complaint was denial of unemployment benefits to two individuals (Alfred Smith for one)  belonging to a Native American Church because they tested positive for mescaline.  The Court agreed with the denial of benefits in 1990:

Employment Div. v Smith Case, 1990

Just in case you are wondering, the individuals had eaten peyote buttons, full of mescaline, which is a hallucinogen. You can be stoned up to 12 hours.  Do not use peyote and drive.  Also, stay far behind pick up trucks in places like New Mexico and Arizona, which might drive into the direction of the sun.

The Court decision was based on the fact that the law was religiously neutral.   Smith case was a 6-3 decision, with Justice Scalia writing the majority opinion.  Justice Blackmun dissented, joined by Brennan and Marshall.   O’Connor’s filed a separate opinion, concurring with the judgement but not the reasoning.  She wrote that a law which is religiously neutral (generally applicable), may still pose a burden on the practice or conduct of religious beliefs.  Thus, it is a case of competing interests.

Blackmun’s dissent  pursued the same logic, and felt the drug testing was overly broad, noting harm from peyote could not be demonstrated. So,  the First Amendment rights are neither obvious not absolute.   The court had imposed the “generally applicable” test to allow state’s interests to come before consideration of religious freedoms.  The states’ interests or objectives had to be narrowly tailored.   The alternative would be to require  exemptions for individuals’ religious practices,  but  only when this was practical and not be detrimental to the  overall state’s objectives.

But the issues can be complicated pretty quickly.  Congress got involved with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), in 1993, which I’ll leave to Part III.   The use of peyote  as part of religious practice in now part of the Oregon statutes as an “affirmative defense”,  as given on the Smith  link.

As we will learn in the next couple of blogs,  how far government must go to accommodate religious exercise has been a controversial issue, involving both the courts and the congress.  State governments have also passed laws, in support of religious groups which oppose certain laws on religious grounds.

Wikipedia has listed on the bottom of the Smith case summary, a chronological listing of the “Free Exercise Clause” notable cases starting in 1879 to 2006. There are 16 cases listed.  One notable case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 2014 did not make the list, because it is likely much more related to RFRA than First Amendment rights to religious freedom.  Hobby Lobby was a 5:4 decision, with the more liberal justices (Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan) dissenting.

The court has changed its thinking on how to decide these cases, Also, there isn’t a unified doctrine among the members of the court on how the cases should be decided. But based on the decisions which have been made in the past,  the basis or criteria used in deciding between individual liberties and the ability of government to uniformly apply laws has changed as follows:

  1.  1879 to 1963,  Was the law religiously neutral?  Was the law enacted to burden one religion?
  2.  1963 – 1990  (beginning with Sherbert and ending with Smith case),  Are there  compelling interests of the state and if so has the law/ rule been narrowly tailored to these interests?   This is consistent with viewing a laws as remedies to a problems, and they are too broad, they can unnecessarily cause conflicts with religious free exercise.
  3.  Nov 1993 forward –  Added complications of Religious Freedom Restoration Act to subsequent challenges,

So buckle up, there are some twists and turns in the road.  Things in this blog will not only be explained as simple as possible, but to the best of my abilities, even simpler.  Sorry Einstein or whoever said it.

Stay tuned.