“Democracy Dies in Darkness.” The Washington Post debuted its grim new slogan in early 2017, not a month after the inauguration of President Trump. The same constructive cynicism that generated the Washington Post’s mission statement is what motivated Jamal Khashoggi to flee his homeland of Saudi Arabia and begin writing for the Post in 2017. Khashoggi was a staunch supporter of democratic values and transparency in his journalistic career, which he exemplified when he condemned human rights violations committed by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the crown prince himself, as well as tribalism, corruption, and the Saudi royal family’s ties to terrorist activity. Jamal Khashoggi strongly demonstrated the Post’s new mantra; ultimately, however, darkness descended as Khashoggi tried to shine a light.
On October 2nd, 2018, the journalist entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and never came out. He went to the consulate to obtain marriage documents while his fiancé awaited his return from outside. In the weeks following his disappearance, it has become apparent that Khashoggi was the victim of premeditated murder, despite initial ambivalence from the Saudi kingdom, which first denied involvement and then subsequently alleged Khashoggi was killed when an altercation got out of hand. The list of suspects includes high ranking intelligence officers and government officials linked to crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
The denial of free speech isn’t uncommon in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government is known for “wrongful arrest[s], misuse of court procedures, cases of torture to extract confessions, and clear cases of miscarriages of justice in recent beheadings” within their justice system. Dissidents are silenced through media control and prison sentences. Salman imprisoned female protestors who objected to the law barring females from driving just weeks before women were legally permitted to drive. They remained imprisoned even after women began driving, an example of the government’s hypocrisy. Additionally, “the Saudi monarchy has a long history of exploiting the podium of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by using its imams to praise, sanctify and defend the rulers and their actions.” Mohammed Bin Salman has been accused by Khaled Abu al-Fadl, a prominent law professor at UCLA, for “using the Grand Mosque to whitewash acts of despotism and oppression… Prince Mohammed has placed the very legitimacy of the Saudi control and guardianship of the holy places of Mecca and Medina in question.” This environment of repression, where the government quashes activism and political participation, is exactly what Khashoggi was fleeing.
Khashoggi’s murder prompted President Trump’s contemplation of the future of the United States’ relationship with Saudi Arabia. He fears human rights sanctions would jeopardize the nations’ alliance, as well as the weapons deals between the two countries, supposedly valued at $110 billion. The President is not only afraid of losing a lucrative business deal, but is also hesitant to call for an FBI investigation because of Khashoggi’s identity as a Saudi citizen, and U.S. permanent resident. While it is unlikely the U.S. will impose severe sanctions, or that the President will sever ties with the kingdom, over the death of a non-citizen, there could be implications for American business relationships financially backed by Saudi Arabia. In a recent statement, President Trump said, “It could very well be that the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event — maybe he did and maybe he didn’t… We may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi.” This statement was made despite the intelligence compiled by the CIA, which found the Crown Prince to be responsible for authorizing Khashoggi’s murder. Trump concluded, “In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
The U.S. government’s inaction despite mass media attention comes as no surprise. Richard N. Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations proposed: “Ideally, the U.S. and European governments would let it be known that they would be more open to working with Saudi Arabia if the power of the Crown Prince were reduced. There should also be limits on U.S. arms sales and intelligence support, which, fortunately, the U.S. Congress is likely to impose. But more important than any sanction would be ratcheting up public and private pressure on [Salman] regarding what is needed and what needs to be avoided. What needs to be avoided is exploitation of the Trump administration’s anti-Iran animus to provoke an armed confrontation that would force others to overcome their qualms and side with Saudi Arabia….What is needed is a concerted push to end the Yemen conflict. ”
On this note, Khashoggi’s murder has also reinvigorated the conversation surrounding the human rights violations that the U.S. is perpetuating in Yemen in order to preserve their relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi coalition has been active in Yemen throughout the duration of the civil war, attacking the Iranian-backed rebels known as the Houthis, who seized control of Northern Yemen in 2011. While the powers of Iran and Saudi Arabia tear Yemen apart in their proxy war, famine and economic disaster have simultaneously ravaged the nation. The U.S. has largely overlooked the humanitarian disaster in Yemen, and U.S. news outlets are focused heavily on the implications the murder will have on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, a relationship that yet to be damaged by the human rights violations taking place in Yemen. “We’re surprised the Khashoggi case is getting so much attention while millions of Yemeni children are suffering,” said a Yemeni doctor. “Nobody gives a damn about them.”
Another party known for its human rights violations, most notably those of journalists in particular, is the Republic of Turkey.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has made it abundantly clear that he condemns the murder of Jamal Khasshogi, and that he is holding Saudi Arabia responsible for his death. Turkish intelligence agents have come forward with alleged audio files detailing the gruesome dismemberment and assassination of Khashoggi. Despite Erdogan’s outspokenness on behalf of Khashoggi, his comments are hypocritical when Turkey’s history of mistreating journalists is taken into account. Turkey has banned at least 179 press and media outlets, and has imprisoned 131 journalists since 2016. In fact, Turkey now accounts for one-third of all journalists imprisoned throughout the world.
Also at odds with Erdogan’s public posturing is data from The Committee to Protect Journalists, which holds Turkey accountable for the murders of reporters. Between 1992 and 2018, a motive was confirmed in the deaths of twenty-five journalists who were killed in Turkey, and twenty-three of these deaths were murders. After the attempted coup in 2016, after which Erdogan made a giant power grab, censorship and media control became rampant. The quashing of dissident speech of Kurdish media outlets, and indeed, anyone who speaks out against the government, has infringed on the freedoms of the Turkish people. Not only has Erdogan singled out and shut down “nearly all private Kurdish-language newspapers, television channels, and radio stations which remained closed on national security grounds under government decrees,” but he also threatened the Kurds after their referendum for a free Kurdistan. Erdogan and Turkey must be held accountable for those offenses, as well as the blatant fact that Khashoggi was killed on Turkish soil.
With lingering questions left unanswered as to who specifically is responsible for the murder of Khashoggi, it’s important to devote focus on those who possess a platform to use Khashoggi’s death as a catalyst to spark change, especially the media.
The last article written by Khashoggi and published posthumously by the Washington Post detailed the offenses of the very type of regime that allegedly called for his execution. The piece was written before his disappearance and published shortly after it was determined that he was no longer alive. The Post shared his last column, “Democracy for the Arab World Now,” in which he spoke out in favor of democracy. Dreams of democracy still linger underneath the surface of censorship and suppression in the Middle East, and the Arab Spring in 2011 was just one example of that. Another example is Khashoggi’s battle for free speech.
As Khashoggi’s fiancé described in a recent New York Times op-ed, Khashoggi was a patriot. A true patriot is critical to the core of his or her country, because a true patriot has great hopes that it can change for the better. The death of Jamal Khashoggi may have been the accidental result of a kidnapping gone wrong, or it could have been a tribalistic attack deeply rooted in Saudi Arabia’s controlling culture. Regardless, the darkness that permeates nations Saudi Arabia must be exposed by the light of information and journalism. Going forward, the tenets of democracy depend on transparency and the light of accountability that journalists like Khashoggi shine. We must constantly hold ourselves accountable to obtain information and spread it, as Khashoggi did throughout his career, with the utmost radiance.