A symbol for the cause of free expression, Jamal Khashoggi’s tragic demise shines a light on the brutal truth that for outspoken journalists, the price for freedom of speech can be death. It shouldn’t be that way.
A year ago, Jamal Khashoggi, a columnist for the Washington Post, was killed, dismembered and incinerated by a team of assassins at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul. He had gone there in hopes of picking up the papers he needed in order to get married. While a CIA report concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman personally ordered Khashoggi’s murder, he has denied the allegations and many questions in the case remain unanswered. President Trump has refused so far to hold the prince responsible.
Khashoggi would have been fascinated by the impact that he has had following his death. Even more than any columns he could have written, the revelations around Khashoggi’s murder shine a bright spotlight on the true colors of the Saudi regime and the state of free speech within it.
The backlash against Prince MbS, as he’s known, has been intense. Even if he hadn’t been prebriefed on the details of the crime, it’s troubling that his elite team of 15 operatives thought killing Khashoggi by injecting him with a sedative then carving him with a bone saw was a good idea. In a recent interview with 60 Minutes, the prince said he took “full responsibility” for the killing, even if he had not condoned it. Arrests have been made, killers will be tried by Saudi courts, and most likely executed. To know “what 3 million people working for the Saudi government do daily” is impossible. “This was a mistake,” he said. “And I must take all actions to avoid such a thing in the future.”
The future. Khashoggi had big hopes for the future of Saudi Arabia and for its de facto leader, Mohammed bin Salman, king Abdullah’s favorite son. When MbS first burst on the scene three years ago, he was supposed to represent the future of Saudi Arabia. Khashoggi hoped that MbS would drag Saudi Arabia at least into the 20th Century. Khashoggi was for years a mass media advisor to the royal court. He published the newspaper Watan and carried out extensive interviews with Osama bin Laden. He believed women should have the same rights as men and be allowed to speak their minds without fear of imprisonment. In 2015 he helped launch a new TV network, Al Arab, in Bahrain. It was shuttered on the first day after airing an interview with a government critic. With that, he became persona non grata. But Khashoggi was not an anti-monarchist. His grandfather served as doctor to the grandfather of MbS; his uncle was King Fahd’s arms dealer. When I interviewed Khashoggi for this story in December 2017, he told me he wasn’t a revolutionary. “I’m not against the system. Without the monarchy the whole country would collapse,” he said. What he wanted most for Saudi Arabia were the things we take for granted in the United States. “I would wish for freedom of expression.”
But his calls for openness were not welcomed by the prince. Khashoggi was banned from Twitter for six months, and ordered by a court to stop writing pieces critical of the government. He came to the United States and became a columnist for the Washington Post, where his first column, in 2017, was titled, “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable.” MbS wasn’t done tightening his grip. In late 2017 MbS imprisoned dozens of Saudi tycoons in the Ritz Carlton Riyadh, including billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal, who said in an interview that the price of his release was $6 billion. Waleed al-Ibrahim, the owner of media giant MBC, got out after 83 days, on the condition that he hand over control of his TV channels to the prince.
In the past year since Khashoggi’s killing, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has urged the U.S. government and the U.N. to pursue transparency and justice for Khashoggi. On September 26, they filed a brief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking to force the administration of President Donald Trump to disclose documents about any threats to Khashoggi that the intelligence community knew of before his murder—and what, if any, warning he was given.
In the meantime, Khashoggi’s death is a symbol for the cause of free expression, inspiring future activists and helping publicize stories of other journalists and activists persecuted by MbS. Those include Al-Jazeera contributor Abdulrahman Farhana, jailed in April, and Loujain al-Hathloul a female driving activist held for over a year.
So is there hope for freedom of expression under MBS? Saudi Arabia ranks fourth on the CPJ’s list of most censored countries, after Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan. At least 16 journalists are believed to be imprisoned.
Khashoggi’s last posthumously published Post column ended with a call for freedom of expression in the Arab world backed by an independent news media:
The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.
Forbes is a founding member of the One Free Press Coalition, which is working to free dozens of reporters around the world, including these 10 Most Urgent cases, of which Khashoggi is no. 1:
After reporting on corruption in Georgia, Afgan Mukhtarli was charged with illegally crossing the border with Azerbaijan and carrying contraband. He is serving a six-year prison sentence.
This Bahraini blogger was arrested after writing on his blog Al-Faseela (Sapling) about repression, discrimination and human rights violations in Bahrain. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 2011 for “plotting to topple the monarchy.”
Reporter was arrested after covering May Day demonstrations in Iran for Shargh Daily newspaper. Sentenced in August to 10.5 years in prison and 148 lashes for “assembly and collusion against national security,” “propaganda against the state” and “disturbing public order.”
Kyrgyz journalist has served nine years of a life sentence for reporting on human rights violations in Kyrgyzstan.
Photographer has served a year in jail awaiting his early October trial data. Venezuela has charged him with criminal association and inciting hate for his reporting on societal collapse there.
Austin Tice (Syria)
Seven years ago, the Georgetown University law student was detained at a checkpoint outside Damascus. He was there to report on civilian life during Syria’s escalating conflict. Tice’s family and United States government have stated that he is alive despite there being no claim of responsibility for his captivity.
Mahmoud Hussein (Egypt)
The journalist was arrested on December 23, 2016 on anti-state and false news charges, following an Al Jazeera documentary about conscription in Egypt. He’s been in Cairo’s Tora Prison Complex ever since.
A freelance journalist investigating mysterious killings in rural Tanzania, Azory Gwanda has been missing since November 21, 2017. The government has failed to conduct a credible investigation or disclose what it knows. On July 10, Tanzanian Foreign Minister Palamagamba Kabudi said in an interview that Gwanda had “disappeared and died,” but backtracked amid requests for clarification.
A reporter for independent news website Akhbar al-Youm, Raissouni was arrested August 31 while leaving her doctor’s office with her fiance, charged with having sex outside of marriage and abortion, then subjected to questioning regarding her political writing. She faces two years in prison.
The Forbes Media family knows what it’s like to lose one of our own in the line of duty. In 2004 Paul Klebnikov, a longtime editor at Forbes who had written widely on the looting of post-Soviet Russia by oligarchs, was killed leaving his Moscow office, shot four times. He was 41.