In the last piece he wrote for The Washington Post, published on Wednesday night, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi worried about the world turning a blind eye to the media crackdown in the Arab world.
Highlighting journalist arrests in his native country as well as in Egypt, Khashoggi wrote, “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”
This is the last time we will see his byline. Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate on Oct. 2 and has not been seen since. Turkish officials, citing growing stacks of damning evidence, say he was murdered in a most gruesome fashion within the walls of that consulate. Turkish police are searching wooded areas outside Istanbul in connection with the case.
Saudi Arabia has thus far denied any knowledge of what happened to Khashoggi, and President Donald Trump is in full support of that line, although on Thursday his Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin said that he — like many others — will not be attending a major conference in Saudi Arabia later this month. He did not mention the outcry over Khashoggi as a reason for his decision.
Assuming the Turkish investigators are correct, what happened to Khashoggi, while shocking in its open violence, is not unique in the Gulf Arab kingdom. Activists and journalists with far fewer means and connections — to say nothing of the attention that comes with having the readership of The Washington Post — are routinely arrested there.
Those Saudi citizens, many unknown to the West, are detained in what Sherine Tadros, head of the U.N. office for Amnesty International in New York, describes as crackdowns happening “in the shadows.”
“This incident didn’t happen in isolation, it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It is part of an aggressive and escalated crackdown on dissenting voices that we’ve seen really escalate since June 2017, when the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, took up his position,” said Tadros.
The crown prince has gone after “anyone who has a different narrative about what’s going on in Saudi Arabia, anyone who dares question him,” she said, listing clerics, academics, journalists, and human rights activists — including Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al Yousef, and Eman al-Nafjan, who advocated for women’s right to drive in Saudi.
Arbitrarily detained since May, there’s little information on what’s happening with those activists.
Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa program coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is dismayed that all of the arrests — even ones that directly contradict Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “agenda of reform” have yet to prompt the U.S. to rethink its relationship of Saudi Arabia.
“The crackdowns against bloggers and human rights activists — the ones who advocated for years for women’s right to drive — continue, even though this [giving women the right to drive] was a key component of the reform agenda that the crown prince presented and was celebrated,” said Mansour.
“These arrests [and CPJ’s efforts to highlight them] were not cause enough for a critical review this agenda, and … the arrests kept coming. There are more journalists there behind bars this year than last year,” he said.
This climate of crisis in journalism, he added, has been exacerbated by the U.S. failing to step up an “take leadership on press freedom,” including in Khashoggi’s case.
CPJ on Thursday joined Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders at the United Nations in New York to call for an impartial, international investigation into Khashoggi’s case within six weeks.
The status of the investigation remains in doubt. While Turkish authorities are pushing ahead, the Saudis continue to deny any wrongdoing. A former CIA expert told ThinkProgress earlier this week that the Saudis are likely to hang one or more of the 15-man team who is said to have played a role in killing Khashoggi out to dry.
“If I’m one of the guys who is member of the 15-member detail, I’m going to be real nervous about going home,” John Nixon told ThinkProgress on Tuesday. And, sure enough, by Thursday, Turkish media reported that one of the 15 men, Mashal Saad al-Bostani, a lieutenant of the Saudi Royal Air Force, had died in a “suspicious car accident” in the Saudi capital of Riyadh, with speculation rampant on the Saudi crown prince doing whatever necessary to get rid of witnesses and evidence.
Tadros said that Saudi Arabia needs to be called out for their actions, “so they are not able to simply whitewash this, and conduct their own internal investigation and say ‘Job done, let’s move on.”
A fair U.N. investigation, she said, is the “best shot at depoliticizing what has become a very politicized incident.”
“We can see what is happening — we can see the visit by [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo to Riyadh, we can see what the Turks are leaking to the media, but not saying anything on record — it’s very clear what’s going on,” said Tadros.
“We are fighting a David-and-Goliath type battle here.”