NEW YORK, New York - The stout man with the gray goatee and the gentle demeanor dared to disagree with his country's government. He told the world the truth about its brutality toward those who would speak out. And he was murdered for it.
Every detail of Jamal Khashoggi's killing made it a sensation: the time stamp on the surveillance video that captured the Saudi journalist entering his country's Istanbul consulate on Oct. 2; the taxiway images of the private jets bearing his assassins; the bone saw; the reports of his final words, "I can't breathe," recorded on audio as the life was choked from him.
But the crime would not have remained atop the world news for two months if not for the epic themes that Khashoggi himself was ever alert to, and spent his life placing before the public. His death laid bare the true nature of a smiling prince, the utter absence of morality in the Saudi-U.S. alliance and-in the cascade of news feeds and alerts, posts and shares and links-the centrality of the question Khashoggi was killed over: Whom do you trust to tell the story?
Khashoggi put his faith in bearing witness. He put it in the field reporting he had done since youth, in the newspaper editorship he was forced out of and in the columns he wrote from lonely exile. "Must we choose," he asked in the Washington Post in May, "between movie theaters and our rights as citizens to speak out, whether in support of or critical of our government's actions?" Khashoggi had fled his homeland last year even though he actually supported much of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's agenda in Saudi Arabia. What irked the kingdom and marked the journalist for death was Khashoggi's insistence on coming to that conclusion on his own, tempering it with troubling facts and trusting the public to think for itself.
Such independence is no small thing. It marks the distinction between tyranny and democracy. And in a world where budding authoritarians have advanced by blurring the difference, there was a clarity in the spectacle of a tyrant's fury visited upon a man armed only with a pen. Because the strongmen of the world only look strong. All despots live in fear of their people. To see genuine strength, look to the spaces where individuals dare to describe what's going on in front of them.
In the Philippines, a 55-year-old woman named Maria Ressa steers Rappler, an online news site she helped found, through a superstorm of the two most formidable forces in the information universe: social media and a populist President with authoritarian inclinations. Rappler has chronicled the violent drug war and extrajudicial killings of President Rodrigo Duterte that have left some 12,000 people dead, according to a January estimate from Human Rights Watch. The Duterte government refuses to accredit a Rappler journalist to cover it, and in November charged the site with tax fraud, allegations that could send Ressa to prison for up to 10 years.
In Annapolis, Md., staff of the Capital, a newspaper published by Capital Gazette Communications, which traces its history of telling readers about the events in Maryland to before the American Revolution, press on without the five colleagues gunned down in their newsroom on June 28. Still intact, indeed strengthened after the mass shooting, are the bonds of trust and community that for national news outlets have been eroded on strikingly partisan lines, never more than this year.
And in prison in Myanmar, two young Reuters reporters remain separated from their wives and children, serving a sentence for defying the ethnic divisions that rend that country. For documenting the deaths of 10 minority Rohingya Muslims, Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone got seven years. The killers they exposed were sentenced to 10.
This year brought no shortage of other examples. Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam was jailed for more than 100 days for making "false" and "provocative" statements after criticizing Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in an interview about mass protests in Dhaka. In Sudan, freelance journalist Amal Habani was arrested while covering economic protests, detained for 34 days and beaten with electric rods. In Brazil, reporter Patricia Campos Mello was targeted with threats after reporting that supporters of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro had funded a campaign to spread false news stories on WhatsApp. And Victor Mallet, Asia news editor for the Financial Times, was forced out of Hong Kong after inviting an activist to speak at a press club event against the wishes of the Chinese government. Worldwide, a record number of journalists-262 in total-were imprisoned in 2017, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which expects the total to be high again this year.
This ought to be a time when democracy leaps forward, an informed citizenry being essential to self-government. Instead, it's in retreat. Three decades after the Cold War defeat of a blunt and crude autocracy, a more clever brand takes nourishment from the murk that surrounds us. The old-school despot embraced censorship. The modern despot, finding that more difficult, foments mistrust of credible fact, thrives on the confusion loosed by social media and fashions the illusion of legitimacy from supplicants.
Modern misinformation, says David Patrikarakos, author of the book War in 140 Characters, titled after the original maximum length of a Twitter post, "does not function like traditional propaganda. It tries to muddy the waters. It tries to sow as much confusion and as much misinformation as possible, so that when people see the truth, they find it harder to recognize."
The story of this assault on truth is, somewhat paradoxically, one of the hardest to tell. "We all learned in our schools that journalists shouldn't be the story ourselves, but this is, again, not our choice," says Can Dundar, who, after being charged with revealing state secrets and nearly assassinated as a newspaper editor in Turkey, fled to Germany, where he set up a news site. "This is the world of the strong leaders who hate the free press and truth."
That world is led, in some ways, by a U.S. President whose embrace of despots and attacks on the press has set a troubling tone. "I think the biggest problem that we face right now is that the beacon of democracy, the one that stood up for both human rights and press freedom-the United States-now is very confused," says Ressa, the Rappler editor. "What are the values of the United States?"
(This article first appeared in Time magazine).