- Journalists around the world are being killed, imprisoned, and harassed for reporting the news and revealing injustice.
- The Biden administration’s promise to declassify a report on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi is an important step for the protection of journalists.
- I filed a lawsuit to expose a “hack and leak” operation led by Saudi leadership involving a network of American trolls spreading lies in attempt to ruin my reputation.
- Ghada Oueiss is a principal anchor and presenter for Al Jazeera Arabic. She previously worked for a number of Lebanese newspapers, television channels and radio stations, and has spent more than two decades in broadcast journalism.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
After four years of then-President Donald Trump coddling despots and attacking journalists, I was heartened that President Joe Biden’s Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines committed to releasing an unclassified report on the killing of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is an important first step for transparency, protecting journalists, and, ultimately, holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his associates accountable for the death of my friend and other crimes.
As an Arab female news anchor, I have been under attack for some time, especially for reporting on the abysmal human rights record of the region’s most repressive regime. Over the past few years, I have been subjected to online campaigns attacking me in an apparent bid to silence my work – with the attacks getting worse every time I reported on another misdeed. While these intimidation campaigns distressed me, I would always remind myself that the job of a journalist to speak truth to power was too important for me to give up.
After all, this was never really about me. These intimidation efforts seek to send a message to all journalists across the Middle East that you will pay a price for criticizing the crown prince.
So, I’m seeking justice in the US
Recently, I discovered that some of my attackers are American citizens who have been collaborating with Saudi Arabia to spread disinformation.
In the waning days of the Trump presidency, I took my own action to hold Crown Prince Mohammed and the network of Americans seeking to destroy my reputation accountable by filing a lawsuit against them in federal court in Florida.
The lawsuit I filed in December details a “hack and leak” operation that was orchestrated by Saudi leadership in cooperation with the United Arab Emirates’ cyber-attack entities and a network of Saudi and American internet trolls who used social media platforms to weaponize stolen information. According to investigators, my phone was hacked by sophisticated operators working on behalf of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Stolen private photos of me were then posted online, some of them doctored to make me appear naked. A hashtag calling me a slut and a prostitute started trending online.
Almost all of the accounts attacking me displayed the Saudi flag or a picture of the crown prince. Saudi and Emirati public figures, including the former head of Dubai Police and a mufti at the Saudi Ministry of Islamic Affairs who is a close ally of Crown Prince Mohammed, amplified these posts and even pushed threats to my life.
In a new twist, this time the defamatory posts were further spread to American audiences by a group of US citizens collaborating with the Saudi regime. Some of the very same people who had justified the murder of Jamal Khashoggi on behalf of their Saudi patrons were now inciting their followers against me on Twitter.
My hope is that this lawsuit will not only expose the menacing online network that the Saudis have established in the US, but will also push social media platforms to take greater action to stop disinformation and bullying campaigns against journalists. These platforms were set up to promote freedom of information, not curtail it.
I am not alone in facing harassment for my reporting
Journalists around the world, particularly women, from Rana Ayoub in India to Maria Ressa in the Philippines to Patrícia Campos Mello in Brazil, have increasingly come under attack for speaking truth to power. We cannot allow oppressive regimes to intimidate us. We cannot allow them to continue attacking one of the most important tenets of a free society — a free press.
A recent UNESCO report revealed alarming trends: there were at least 21 attacks on journalists covering protests in the first half of 2020 — equal to the number of such attacks in all of 2017. From 2010 to 2019, close to 900 journalists were killed while doing their job, more than 150 in the last two years alone.
More recently, Indian journalist Mandeep Punia is being detained for merely covering a farmers’ strike. Venezuelan journalist Darvinson Roja was detained by police as she reported on increasing COVID-19 cases throughout the country. Journalists must be protected, at a time when simply telling the truth can get you fired, your reputation ruined, or even killed.
Biden must hold Prince Mohammed accountable
While my fight will now be in the courtroom, there is also one that needs to be fought in the corridors of power. Many analysts believe the recent change in the crown prince’s behavior is due to fear of the incoming Biden administration. He hopes that President Biden will ignore his criminal actions, allowing the prince to escape repercussions from cases like mine.
President Biden has said that he would not have allowed the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to pass so lightly if he was in the White House. His administration is starting to back that promise up with action. I look forward to seeing President Biden protect the First Amendment and those practicing it, not just in the US, but globally.
The Biden administration must make clear it will follow precedent and reject the crown prince’s efforts to claim legal immunity in the many cases against him in US court. These cases, including one for the murder of my friend Jamal, should be allowed to move forward. Now is the time to take a stand for free speech and journalists around the world by finally holding Crown Prince Mohammed and his enablers accountable for their heinous actions.