Press freedom, human rights, and digital security experts at a Feb. 24 panel discussion called for greater accountability over the ruthless 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government. 

The event, co-sponsored by the Knight Institute, Columbia Global Freedom of Expression, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, took place just ahead of the expected release of a highly anticipated report from U.S. intelligence on Khashoggi’s death, which was withheld illegally under the Trump administration, said Knight Institute Executive Director Jameel Jaffer.

The hour-long virtual discussion, which drew approximately 150 viewers from around the world,  followed a pre-screening of “The Dissident,” a recently released documentary detailing the murder of Khashoggi, and exploring the human rights, press freedom, and digital surveillance issues raised by the case.

Much of the panel’s talk centered on ensuring that those responsible for the killing and its cover-up are held to account. Agnès S. Callamard, director of Global Freedom of Expression at Columbia University and the U.N. special rapporteur who led the inquiry into the assassination, said that it is already clear who was behind Khashoggi’s murder. 

“What we are looking at now is not a rogue operation, as [the Saudi government] keeps insisting,” she said, “but a state execution conducted, resourced, and organized by the state of Saudi Arabia.” 

Callamard submitted her findings to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in 2019. She acknowledged during the panel that she had to conduct her inquiry without ready access to materials from intelligence sources and with only limited time and money from the U.N. Jaffer lauded the results, nonetheless, as “exhaustive and meticulously researched.” 

The panelists discussed the challenges of bringing the perpetrators of the crime to justice. Joel Simon, executive director of Committee to Protect Journalists recalled having spoken with Callamard at the start of her investigation. “I said, ‘Do you know what justice looks like?’ And you said, ‘It’s not going to be justice. It’s going to be accountability.’ ”

Callamard did hold out hope, however, that the pending U.S. intelligence report on the assassination may provide further evidence that would be “impossible for the rest of the world to ignore.”

The panelists’ alarm went beyond Khashoggi’s vicious murder, which Jaffer called both “a terrible crime [and] a singular insult to press freedom,” to questions over how an expanding surveillance society might crush civic action.

“A huge chilling effect is sweeping over civil society,” added panelist Ron Deibert, director of the Citizen Lab, University of Toronto. He contrasted the optimism with which pro-democracy activists used digital media during the Arab Spring with current concerns over the surveillance economy’s abuse of personal data.  

“People were using social media, instant messaging applications, email applications, to organize and mobilize,” Deibert recalled. “Now it’s like sand has been put in the machinery of all of this equipment and technology, because of the fear and the climate of concern around surveillance.”

Deibert cautioned that government responses to the abuses of surveillance technology were “not very promising.” He also held out limited hope that litigation could curb the worst effects. Callamard, for her part, called on corporations to draw a “red line” over doing business with any countries where their products, including information and surveillance technologies, may be used to repress freedom of expression.

Simon, meanwhile, praised fellow panelists and others who he said were “pushing back against the stifling surveillance that puts us all at risk [in] what is perhaps the defining press freedom struggle of our time.”

Watch the whole conversation here.