National Press Club

Panel calls sanctions an effective tool to protect press, but only if actually used

February 12, 2019 | By Justin Duckham | justinjduckham@gmail.com

Rep. Tom Malinowski addresses the National Press Club in a discussion with panelists Rob Malinowski (far left), Rachel Oswald, and Courtney Radsch (far right). The NPC Journalism Institute sponsored the Feb. 11 discussion on the growing use of human rights sanctions to protect journalists.

Rep. Tom Malinowski addresses the National Press Club in a discussion with panelists Rob Malinowski (far left), Rachel Oswald, and Courtney Radsch (far right). The NPC Journalism Institute sponsored the Feb. 11 discussion on the growing use of human rights sanctions to protect journalists.

Photo/Image: Marshall H. Cohen

The assassination of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi sparked outrage on Capitol Hill,prompting a bipartisan collection of senators to trigger an investigation under the Global Magnitsky Act, a panel of human rights experts told a National Press Club audience Monday.

The Act is a 2016 law that sets the stage for levying sanctions against individuals responsible for human rights violations.

The threat of such sanctions could be an important tool to protect journalists across the globe, the panel said. That is, they emphasized, if the U.S. is actually willing to take action, something that has appeared increasingly unlikely in the Khashoggi case.

Media stories have reported that Khashoggi was murdered last October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. As details continue to emerge, suspicions have grown that Saudi Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud played a key role in the journalist’s death.

“Could a future administration bolster the deterrent effect by making clear publicly and in advance that those responsible for gross violations of human rights targeting members of the press … could face consequences for their actions? Yes, that’s conceivable,” Rob Berschinski, the senior vice president for policy at Human Rights First, said.

Although, Berschinski noted, there is little reason to be optimistic.

The panel discussion, centered on the use of sanctions to protect reporters and moderated Congressional Quarterly foreign policy reporter Rachel Oswald, came just days after the White House signaled it is unwilling to confront Saudi leadership, members said.

Under the terms of the Senate-mandated investigation, the Trump administration had 120 days to compile a report on who was responsible for Khashoggi’s death, but the deadline arrived on Friday and the administration offered few answers, the panel noted.

The White House issued a statement that President Donald Trump “maintains his discretion to decline to act on congressional committee requests when appropriate.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a letter to the Senate detailing sanctions the administration had previously taken against 17 Saudi nationals implicated in the journalist’s murder, but declined to address Mohammad Bin Salman’s involvement.

The responses stand in stark contrast to an assessment from the U.S. intelligence community reportedly concluding that the Saudi prince likely ordered Khashoggi to be killed, the panel said. They do, however, echo Trump’s public warnings that harsh action against the Saudi government could hobble the U.S. economy,

Courtney Radsch, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ advocacy director, said the administration’s reaction poses immediate concerns, but leaves an opening for lawmakers to pick up the slack.

“The fact that the Trump administration decided not to reply with any meaningful information on Friday sends a very dangerous and negative signal,” Radsch said. “I think we’re going to hear from Congress and I’d be interested to know what the next steps from Congress are to hold Jamal Khashoggi’s murder and the mastermind accountable.”

Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, concurred, adding that it appears the White House may have broken the law by ignoring Congress’ request.

“This is, in my opinion as a member of Congress, an example of the executive branch defying the law. They would rather defy the law than offend Saudi Arabia,” Malinowski said.

Now, he added, Congress may be motivated to pass legislation that would require sanctions rather than leaving the decision in the hands of the president.

While the panel acknowledged that consistently enforced U.S. sanctions would be effective, they also agreed that more can certainly be done, especially on the world stage.

In some cases, Berschinski, said, that effort is already well underway, including related laws in Canada, the United Kingdom and some Baltic states.

Considering Europe’s proximity to dictatorial regimes, Radsch pointed out that the European Union passing a law similar to the Magnitsky Act could be particularly beneficial.

“If we’re talking about protecting journalists in countries that lack any sort of protection for journalists, lack due process and lack any sort of respect for press freedom, I think we’re going to have to look externally,” Radsch said.