Leader comment: Liberal democracy is a life-and-death issue

The alleged murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country's consulate in Istanbul shows why liberal democracy is so important. But, all over the world, it is in decline.

Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is feared to have been murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  (Picture: Hasan Jamali, AP)
Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is feared to have been murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. (Picture: Hasan Jamali, AP)

A man walks into a consulate of his native country and is never seen again. If ever there was an argument for liberal democracy, the rule of law and free speech, it is the presumed fate of Jamal Khashoggi.

According to Saudi Arabia, the Washington Post columnist visited its diplomatic outpost in Istanbul to get a document certifying his divorce so he could remarry, and then left unharmed. If this is true, it is strange he then decided to abandon his fiancee, who was waiting outside, and disappeared off the face of the Earth.

The Turkish authorities have offered a different account, telling US officials they have evidence that Khashoggi was tortured and killed inside the building.

As a critic of the Saudi royal family, Khashoggi had decided to live in self-imposed exile. Last year, he wrote a column in which he spoke of the “fear, intimidation, arrests and public shaming of intellectuals and religious leaders who dare to speak their minds”. He said he could be detained if he returned home, pointing to a recent “wave of arrests”. The Saudi government had also banned him from Twitter after he “cautioned against an overly enthusiastic embrace of then-President-elect Donald Trump”.

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The article was actually quite mild but, if Turkey is correct, it may have cost him his life.

The first duty of any state should be to protect its citizens, not murder them. In a genuine democracy, such a killing is much less likely to happen because an election could lead to the transfer of power and the exposure of the crime. And public criticism and ridicule of political leaders is part of everyday life.

In a dictatorship, the people in charge don’t have a genuine mandate from the people they rule and there is no peaceful way for a transference of power. Allowing public criticism is therefore dangerous to the lives of the kings, queens and presidents concerned.

So it is hard to work out why it is that democracy is under threat the world over. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, less than five per cent of the world’s population lives in a full democracy with nearly a third under authoritarian rule. More than half of 167 countries assessed received a lower score on the index than the year before. The Scotsman can write this article confident that no one here will get killed because the UK is a liberal democracy. And that’s a precious thing.