What does Khashoggi mean for press freedom?

Photo by Kenneth Gibson.

Human rights panel discusses the implications of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

Two journalists and a Saudi Arabian activist gathered at Concordia on Oct. 17 to discuss the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent critic of Saudi leadership. It is widely believed that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman orchestrated the plot leading to Khashoggi’s death.

The panel was organized by Concordia’s Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) to address what the incident means for the “freedom of the press, human rights, in Saudi Arabia and the world,” said MIGS Executive Director, Kyle Matthews.

Khashoggi had exiled himself to the United States in June 2017 and began writing a regular column for the Washington Post. His columns criticized the Saudi government for allowing women to drive while the women who campaigned for that reform remained in prison. The columns also criticized  the county’s brutal human rights violations in Yemen, and the use of the death penalty against political dissidents.

Khashoggi was last seen entering Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. In the weeks following his disappearance, a series of leaks from Turkish officials claimed they had evidence, including CCTV footage, proving Khashoggi was murdered and dismembered by a 15-person team of Saudi intelligence officers inside the consulate.

After weeks of describing Turkey’s accusations as “baseless lies,” and insisting Khashoggi had left the consulate unharmed, Saudi officials conceded on Oct. 19 that Khashoggi had died inside. The official story is that agents sent to pressure the journalist into returning to Saudi Arabia put him in a chokehold to prevent him calling for help, leading to his death.

For Matthews, the potential consequences are clear: “When you go after journalists, that is the first step […]. Then political opposition leaders, civil, human rights leaders, and then the general population.”

One of the panelists, Saudi Arabian political activist and Quebec resident, Omar Abdulaziz, was a close associate of Khashoggi’s. “Three weeks ago, I was on a phone call with Mr. Khashoggi,” said Abdulaziz. “We were working on some projects to counter Saudi propaganda.”

Abdulaziz spoke authoritatively about the general political situation for dissidents in Saudi Arabia. “The mentality of the Saudi administration is not allowing us […] to even try to say, ‘I do agree with you but you have to change that small thing.’ No, that is not going to happen,” he said.

Mohammed bin Salman’s rise to de facto leader of Saudi Arabia in 2017 was accompanied by a slew of positive media coverage in the West, where he was widely referred to as “MBS.” It was the result of a coordinated public relations campaign to promote a progressive image of Saudi Arabia.

MBS took a glad-handing tour of New York, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, taking photos with Rupert Murdoch and Sergey Brin of Google. As recently as March of this year, 60 Minutes was telling its audience that MBS was “emancipating women, introducing music and cinema and cracking down on corruption.” His reforms were “revolutionary.”

Khashoggi’s Washington Post columns were one of the few critical voices in American media. “Jamal Khashoggi was a headache to the Saudi government,” said Abdulaziz. “They were spending billions promoting a new image of the country and he was saying, ‘no, this is not true.’”

Abdulaziz first came to Canada in 2009 to study at McGill. During his studies, he began to use social media to publish videos that criticized the MBS regime. By 2014, friends and family back in Saudi Arabia were warning Abdulaziz it would be dangerous for him to come back, so he successfully applied for political asylum in Canada.

Abdulaziz is familiar with the tactics the Saudi government uses to target its dissident citizens abroad. Just one day prior to Khashoggi’s disappearance, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab published a report outlining how Abdulaziz’s cellphone had been infected with spyware by a Saudi-based operator using a sophisticated phishing scam.

In fact, according to Abdulaziz, within the last year, the Saudi government had reached out to him to say MBS admired his videos and wanted him to come back and live in Saudi Arabia. When he declined, the government officials made him an ominous offer:

“They said ‘OK, just come for an hour with us to the embassy […] we’re going to get you a new passport, your passport is already expired,’” said Abdulaziz. “I was scared.”

It is important to note Khashoggi’s complicated relationship with the Saudi regime. “He explicitly said he did not consider himself a dissident,” said one of the journalists on the panel, Lisa Goldman. “He said he does not believe Saudi Arabia should become a democracy, he thinks it should reform. But, he is a supporter of the royal family. He used to be an advisor.”

For Abdulaziz, the fact that such criticism would spark such a lethal response speaks volumes about MBS. “He is too sensitive to read an article telling him to change his behaviour, and that is why he did what he did,” said Abdulaziz. “And that is why he arrested two of my brothers, and a group of my friends at the beginning of August.”

The White House had, until recently, resisted joining international condemnation of Saudi Arabia. At first, Donald Trump even criticized the rush to denounce Saudi Arabia as unfair, citing Mohammed bin Salman’s denial during a personal telephone call with him.

Trump finally conceded on Oct. 18 that Khashoggi was likely murdered in a plot involving high levels of the Saudi government. However, he stopped short of inculpating MBS directly. Trump has also been frank about the sale of American manufactured weapons to Saudi Arabia, saying “I don’t wanna lose an order like that.”

Canada is also unfortunately complicit in Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses by selling them arms to the tune of $15 billion. The Trudeau government’s response has been similar to Trump’s, with Prime Minister Trudeau saying they planned to respect the contract “signed by the previous government.”

It is a dire precedent for political dissidents, when some of the most powerful democracies in the world would rather do business with oppressive regimes than stand up for democratic ideals. This point was driven home by Goldman: “Rogue states have become emboldened by the Trump administration’s policies toward violations of human rights.”

Khashoggi’s final column, written before his disappearance, was published by the Washington Post on the same day as the panel. Appropriately, the column called for more free expression in the Arab world, lamenting that violations of the press in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries “no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community.”

For Matthews, he is troubled by what he has seen from the United States’s administration on this issue. “The U.S. has always stood up for the freedom of the press… it is not the greatest moment in U.S. diplomacy, at the same time, most pressure has to be on Saudi Arabia. They are the ones doing this.”

 Photo by Kenneth Gibson.


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