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Without evidence: The media’s failings in response to Khashoggi’s disappearance

Too much is unknown about the man for international diplomacy to be shaped by his disappearance
This image taken from CCTV video obtained by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, October 2, 2018. (CCTV/ Hurriyet via AP)
This image taken from CCTV video obtained by the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet claims to show Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, October 2, 2018. (CCTV/ Hurriyet via AP)

Who is Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who has disappeared, allegedly out of the Saudi consulate in Turkey, where he supposedly was getting his divorce papers, only a few days ago?

In his own words, he is an AKP supporter, a critic of the current Saudi government, and an opponent of authoritarianism. But how can that be? At the Oslo Freedom Forum, he called “AKP” an “advanced party”, despite its openly corrupt role in the elections, and despite it having become a quintessential vehicle for Erdogan’s authoritarianism. If you read the transcript of a portion of Khashoggi’s recent interview with Seth Frantzman, he sounds like a reasonable man, who criticizes the Salafist takeover of the Muslim Brotherhood narrative, who supports the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s push against Salafists and the religious establishment, and decries the excesses of the Saudi crackdown on critics. In his own words, Khashoggi accuses the Israelis of “depriving Palestinians of the right to resist” — only very shortly before disappearing.

By now, the story has reached around the world. Videocamera footage shows Khashoggi going into the Saudi consulate but there is no footage showing him leaving.  Reuters journalists have inspected the premises and found nothing. Turkey has accused Saudi Arabia government of masterminding the torture and murder of the journalist; Turkish officials are demanding to inspect the Consulate. The alleged that 15 Saudis flew into the country via private airplanes, murdered Khashoggi, and spirited his dismembered body in suitcase out of the country.  The Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman, denied these allegations; the Crown Prince stated on record that he would like to know where Khash\oggi is. It’s unclear whether he was ever informed about any such plans for an operation related to Khashoggi.

Then, a source close to the Royal Family admitted that the Saudis did abduct Khashoggi, but that he is alive, and like several vocal critics and particularly ones alleged to have had contact with adversarial states such as Qatar, is in a prison somewhere.  Meanwhile, the story spread like wildfire across Middle Eastern and Western media, in part because Khashoggi was well known and had a big following, and in part because the story is sensationalist and involves two governments that are considered allies of the United States, but have a poor record on human rights.  NBC did a segment on Khashoggi’s disappearance; Tom Friedman, Judith Miller, Benny Avni, Dr. Daud Abdullah, and other journalists have weighed in on his disappearance, without a shred of evidence accepting the Turkish narrative as accurate. Tom Friedman, who once wrote a glowing account of his interview with the Crown Prince, has already been made into a laughingstock;  Professor Daniel Drezner in Washington Post has decided that this incident marks the failure of the movement for reform in Saudi Arabia and for Mohammed bin Salman.

The grotesque vision of a body ripped into 15 pieces and carried out in suitcases has captured the world’s imagination, regardless of its truth value or any other context. In an unusual move, President Trump expressed concern over Khashoggi,  and along with Secretary of State Pompeo, called on Saudi Arabia to launch an investigation into his disappearance. National Security Adviser John Bolton and Jared Kushner spoke to the Crown Prince demanding answers. Senators Tillis and Coons likewise demanded an investigation. Senator Rand Paul is threatening to force a vote to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the journalist, which would be a disastrous development in the US-Saudi relations, particularly in view of President Trump’s vision for an “Arab NATO”, and Saudi Arabia’s decisive role as a leader and a reformer in the Middle East. The situation has turned into a public spectacle and an embarrassment, particularly for a country that is known to be extremely sensitive to public shaming and is more likely to dig in its heels than open up  under the threat of continuous public inquiry and humiliation.

The most recent update comes from a report, that supposedly the US intelligence has captured chatter of Saudi operatives discussing plans to abduct Khashoggi; it is unclear whether or not US has warned Khashoggi about these intercepted  plans. This exceptionally negative publicity for Saudi Arabia has been seized upon by the Qatari-Muslim Brotherhood media, which has shown obsessive interest with this case — to the exclusion of all other critics and dissidents of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, any misstep by the Saudi government plays well into the hands of its enemies, in an entirely predictable manner. What is more interesting is the unabashed and uncritical gloating coming from the Western, supposedly objective media, which is supposed to be dedicated to truth seeking and investigative journalist rather than partisan narratives.

All of the big names in journalism — ranging from NBC’s Chris Hayes with his 1.7  million Twitter followers, to Friedman and Miller — have issued facile emotional condemnations of the Saudis relying entirely on the Turkish narrative. This is precisely the sort of approach that would make the Saudi government react to any sign of criticism from its dissidents or from the Western press with defensiveness, if not outright fear. The climate of witch hunts is not conducive to trust building, admission of mistakes, or honesty when there is everything to lose from admitting any role whatsoever in the journalist’s disappearance and nothing to gain from being forthright. The one-sided scrutiny and merciless flagellation of the Saudi leadership by most of the major Western outlets (some of which occasionally provide unabashed flattery of the  young Crown Prince, but few of which can be counted  on for thoughtful, balanced, and profound analysis) has created a rift between the officials responsible for communication on the Saudi side and those seeking accurate information in the West.

The country, struggling to emerge from complete closure into transparency, is less likely to react by rewarding its attackers with precious secrets and information than in an environment of intellectual honesty and genuine curiosity.  Indeed, the latest developments showed that the true aim of the Western media has not been to seek much-needed answers on this controversy, but rather to take assumptions as answers and turn them into clickbait. Khashoggi’s disappearance has been nothing but an opportunity for the press to attract readers to a sensationalist story and to bash easy, predictable villains it has identified on a hunch.

The story likewise reveals double standards of the press with respect to investigating the misfortunes of its own kind. The brutal rape and murder of a young Bulgarian journalist investigating corruption and embezzlement of EU funding in her home country, following a similarly suspicious death of another lady journalist investigating corruption in Malta did not attract even a fraction of attention from the Western media, much less the US government, even though European countries are supposed to be above such things as likely extrajudicial assassinations of critics and journalists.  What’s so special about Khashoggi then? Well, the media can rely on generating a great deal of attention in taking morally easy positions in condemning the alleged perpetrators without having to do any actual work to score the brownie points.

Investigating the deaths of investigative journalists would require long painstaking research which would not be cost effective, nor result in the glamour of getting to bash the Saudi government possibly in exchange for generous support from its opponents. No one actually cares about Bulgaria or Malta and their corruption; few would bother reading such articles, much less provide financial boons for the media outlets. No journalists would be taken out to fancy dinners as a result of hard work in getting to unpleasant answers. Also, investigations of nasty mobsters which have already resulted in gruesome and public executions of their colleagues (no secretive getaways there), could be dangerous to one’s own health.

If these journalists were interested in truth, they would have asked what made Khashoggi such a threat above all other Saudi expatriate critics, that the government would possibly risk public exposure, scrutiny, and a rift with the US government just to shut him down. If these journalists wanted to know what happened to Khashoggi, instead of opining from their armchairs, they would have been in Turkey asking questions — of everyone. If the press wanted to know what happened, it would have started by asking — who is or was Khashoggi and what did he stand for? Was he an honest journalist on the “wrong” side of an authoritarian government who was persecuted for speaking truth to power? Or was he a former Saudi government apparatchik who had had a political falling out with the previous king and having never quite recovered from  his fall from grace turned to other high level protectors for his bread and butter?

Was Khashoggi an opponent of authoritarianism or did he implicitly and explicitly support other forms of authoritarianism, such as Erdogan’s AKP party and the Muslim Brotherhood? Was he an honest public thinker who raised important questions inconvenient to powerful governments or was he a political activist who made his name on populism and an opposing any possibility of reform and peace in the region by appealing to the lowest common denominator? Was he acting as a member of the press in investigating and exposing wrongdoing? Or was he an agent of political forces? Even if Khashoggi was not a journalist, few people would justify a policy of abductions and political assassinations. However, if he were, in fact, a political operative masquerading as a journalist, if he was on the payroll of another government, then there is no reason for the press, much less for the US government, to adopt his cause as a symbol of international injustice against the press.

The media should be doing everything possible to get to the bottom of what is going on — but that means doing actual work, interviewing people connected to Khashoggi, figuring out why anyone would want him silenced or dead above a myriad of other such voices in the Arab and Middle Eastern world. Rumors have it that Khashoggi was in bed with extremists. If so, then, while the methods of his extraction may have been incompetent, unjust, and thoughtless, the bottom line is perhaps this was not someone who should ever have had a platform. Perhaps, Khashoggi was ultimately doing more harm than good. Regardless of the responsibility of the media in this matter, Khashoggi is not the hill for the United States government to die on, in terms of protections for free speech and due process around the world. Sending Bolton and Kushner to confront Mohammed bin Salman over this issue was awkward and unseemly; the Crown Prince, if uninformed about the operation (whetever it was or supposed to be, if anything), is put into the awkward position of having to answer in public for something he knew little about and perhaps did not even approve directly; if informed at least partially, he cannot be publicly open about it with Americans or anyone else without losing face inside his own country.

He is put in an impossible position, and it is humiliating regardless of what he says. If President Trump is as concerned about Khashoggi as he claims on record — above the numbers of liberal critics of President Putin’s regime assassinated in the many years since his ascent to power and known for their courage and principles, above the hundreds, if not thousands of journalists fired, arrested, murdered, and tortured by the Erdogan regime, above the journalists assassinated in Mexico that President Trump likely could not even name — if indeed the fate of this man is so important to the President of the United States, than the effective way to find out what happened without also ruining the relations with an important ally over someone who is very likely opposed to everything both President Trump and his Saudi counterpart stand for in terms of common vision for the region — would have been to approach the Saudi government quietly, off the record, find out the truth — if there is any to find out — save everyone the embarrassment and the fuss — and handle this matter in an appropriate way, well known to US government officials in this position. The US government should share its concerns and find ways of promoting its values in a way that is effective, that works, and that will be appreciated by its counterparts. If it wants to see the continuation of reforms inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and fewer bumbling mistakes and faux pas, it should focus its energies on securing the release of peaceful dissidents in line with the Saudi government’s own vision a more modern and moderate society and engaging them on promoting these important changes, which can use all the support it’s possible to get. Muslim Brotherhood supporters are not and should not be the priority for President Trump or for anyone else who supports freedom, security, and justice.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.
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