From freedom of expression to censorship by assassination: a slippery path with political dissidents’ rights under ongoing attack

October 2018

In October 2008 Quist represented a famous Saudi dissident in his successful High Court appeal (view judgement) against Arab Satellite Communications Organisation in which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia held a 36% stake.

The case concerned unfounded allegations that Quist’s client was in some way responsible for the un-authorised use of transponder space on satellites owned by the claimant to broadcast his material within the Kingdom, amongst other places.

A central issue in the case concerned whether our client was obliged to provide details of his supporters, to the extent they were known by him, and who may have been involved in any way in arrangements for the broadcasts. The court held that he was not obliged to do so.

While referring to our client’s evidence the court made some important observations which resonate today. The court noted:

“[Quist’s client] explains that he has a large number of supporters in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Some are willing to declare themselves but others feel unable to express their support publicly. He says…

“If such individuals were to openly express their sympathy…… they would be prone to harassment, arrest and even torture by many of the particularly harsh Middle Eastern Governments. What are regarded as acceptable levels and forms of freedoms in this country are not tolerated at all in many other countries…”

The court also noted that satellite companies broadcasting our client’s programmes “under ordinary commercial arrangements [which] were entirely legitimate… had only limited success owing to jamming by the Saudi government, and latterly the satellite companies in question had been increasingly unwilling to broadcast the… material because… of pressure from the Saudi government…

There are good reasons why those involved in dissident activities should be chary of identifying themselves even to their allies.

[The court] accept[ed] that people of some means and some standing in the Arab world, as the sponsors [of Quist’s client] would inevitably be, would have good reasons for not wishing to be publicly identified as critics of the Saudi government…the sponsors in question are people who have been active in promoting the free expression of political opinion and indeed…doing so entirely by legitimate means. That is an important value, and the court ought to respect their confidentiality unless…..they have been acting unlawfully”

Freedom of speech and the right to freedom of expression applies to ideas of all kinds including those that may be political in nature. Under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression is the right of every individual to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1989[1] makes similar provision.

Historically repressive government behaviour has prevented people from exercising their rights of freedom of expression. In the United States, historically, individuals attempting to exercise their First Amendment Rights have been censored, fined and jailed. It took almost 200 years to place limits on government power to punish perceived sedition and subversive speech. From the 18th century right through to the present day authors of writings against the government, abolitionists, religious minorities, suffragists, labour organisers, pacifists and whistle-blowers have met with harsh repression by governments.

The disappearance of the acclaimed Washington Post columnist and senior adviser to previous Saudi regimes, Jamal Khashoggi[2] (see links from US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, HRW & The Washington Post below), represents a potentially gruesome form of censorship against the exercise of a basic human right and essential ingredient for any healthy and democratic political system in dire need of reform.

The risk and affects of a repressive regime were recognised by the British High Court in the case led by Quist in 2008. The court’s remarks have an even more compelling and entirely relevant application today.

Quist gathered evidence concerning dissidents and the Saudi media in the form of an extensive report[3] produced by Hugh Miles.[4] This highlighted the methods of control and repression engaged in. A copy of this report was also submitted to the United Nations during the course of a separate legal procedure.

Our client, also a distant relative of the Saudi royal family, nevertheless suffered mistreatment and imprisonment in Saudi Arabia in 1993. The repeated attempts to silence him and his calls for reform have persisted over decades. He was the subject of an attempt to kidnap him in 2003 in the UK. He has also received warnings of plans to attack and assassinate him over the years.

Jamal Khashoggi’s tragic story is neither surprising nor a wholly new phenomenon. He was also calling for reform.

[1] Article 10
Freedom of expression
1 Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
2 The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

[2] Jamal Khashoggi

US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations:
Senate Foreign Relations Committee initiates a Global Magnitsky Sanctions determination process related to the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi (10th October 2018)

Human Rights Watch:
Turkey/Saudi Arabia: Prominent Journalist Missing (4th October 2018)

The Washington Post:
Please, President Trump, shed light on my fiance’s disappearance (9th October 2018)
Crown prince sought to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia and detain him, U.S. intercepts show (10th October 2018)
Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post

[3] Saudi Dissidents & the Media by Hugh Miles

[4] About Hugh Miles