The challenge of reporting the Khashoggi story

October 17, 2018
Media gather around Saudi Arabia's consulate on October 15, 2018 (Photo by OZAN KOSE / AFP)

Since October 2, when Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, disappeared inside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, horrific—and unverified—details have cascaded from the Turkish press to our own. Fifteen men brought a bone saw through Istanbul airport in the middle of the night, we heard. The consulate hurriedly repainted rooms in the days after his disappearance, Reuters wrote. Khashoggi died accidentally during interrogation. Unless he was purposefully tortured and murdered. Once Turkish officials seemed to verify that audio recordings captured his torture and murder, The New York Times Istanbul bureau was quick to note that Turkish media leaks, frequent at first, had stemmed off when President Trump seemed to take the accusations against the Saudis seriously, and then resumed when Trump defended the crown prince and suggested “rogue killers” might have killed Khashoggi instead.

The struggle to double check evidence when the only sources of information—the Turkish government and closely intertwined Turkish media—are politically biased has been a challenge for journalists reporting the Khashoggi case. Yunus Erduran, a local journalist and creator of a citizen journalism network in Istanbul, estimates that 90 percent of Turkish media is owned by businesses that work in support of President Recep Erdoğan. Details in their stories bear the hallmarks of purposeful leaks from Turkish intelligence units, Erduran says. CCTV footage features airports and the immediate exterior of the consulate—areas under police control. The speed with which officials sent CCTV footage to Sabah, Turkey’s largest daily, was unusual; bureaucratic red tape typically slows down access to that type of investigative evidence.It took more than one year to get the views from CCTV’s for the 2007 assasination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink,” he says. “But here, in a couple of days, everything was served. To us, it’s quite obvious that it has a specific purpose.”

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Carlotta Gall, the Istanbul bureau chief for the Times, says that careful sourcing is paramount when covering leaks from an authoritarian government. Reporting the Khashoggi investigation has been “incredibly difficult,” she says, because there have been no official or firsthand sources willing to give their names on the record. “The Turkish government was extremely careful not to make an official statement for days,” she says. We were sitting on this huge story we couldn’t not report.”

Information so far comes from secondhand sources or anonymous Turkish officials. The day after Khashoggi’s disappearance, Gall went down to the consulate in Istanbul and stood on the sidewalk with Hatice Cengizl, Khashoggi’s fiancée, waiting for him to return. Two members of the Turkish Arab Media Association also joined Cengiz on the sidewalk shortly after his disappearance, Gall says. They fielded queries from Gall and corresponded with close connections in the Turkish government and with Khashoggi’s friends on her behalf. “When we couldn’t find second sources sometimes, they were knowledgeable enough to step in,” Gall explains.

Gall says she also had to learn which Turkish officials are “cavalier with the truth.” Her team knows of two reporters at Sabah who are notorious for landing security briefings and breaking those stories, but the Times always treats those stories, often riddled with anonymous quotes, with caution. When Sabah published the photographs and names of 15 alleged members of a Saudi hit team and clean up squad, Gall worked with the Times teams in Beirut and New York set to work to confirm the story. In the end, the Times published photos of all 15 men, but wrote that they could only verify the identities of two—both through personal Facebook accounts. Six days later, The Washington Post verified the identities of 11 of the suspects using social media posts, emails, and local media reports. The Post found that nine of the men have profiles on MenoM3ay, a phone directory app popular in the Arab world, linking them to the Saudi security forces and, in some cases, the Royal Guard.

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Turkish authorities have still not released the audio recording they say they have of Khashoggi’s torture and murder. At this point, “the audio is still only secondhand evidence,” Bel Trew, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, tells CJR. If it exists and is released, it will confirm whether Khashoggi died under a botched interrogation—something she says the Saudis have a history with, including during the high-profile death of Major General Ali al-Qahtani. There is no precedent for planned murders in Saudi consulates, Trew says.

Trew has reported on patterns in Saudi human rights abuses to contextualize much of the information leaked through the Turkish press. An October 12 piece for The Independent described how  Prince Khaled bin Farhan al-Saud, a Saudi prince living in exile, had avoided kidnapping 10 days before Khashoggi’s disappearance. Khaled bin Farhan told Trew that authorities had tried to lure him to the embassy at least 30 times, much as the consulate did with Khashoggi. The ploy was part of an “escalating crackdown orchestrated by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman,” he explained. Trew tells CJR that she weighed the variables carefully before publishing Khaled bin Farhan’s name. “People’s lives are on the line,” she says.

Trew and her team also made a decision early on in the investigation not to contribute to the “cacophany of stories and maze of misinformation.” A few days ago, she held a story based on a tip saying that Khashoggi had been murdered. The tip did not check out consistently—Turkish authorities offered conflicting information. “It’s a gruesome show,” she says. “Be mindful there’s a family there.”

The work of journalists like Trew builds a more robust picture of the Saudis’ behavior. “All of a sudden, everybody’s talking about it, ‘Yeah they did the same thing with me,’” Deborah Amos, a correspondent at NPR and a longtime friend of Khashoggi’s, says. “I cover this stuff pretty closely, and I was like, the Saudis have been really busy, and we didn’t know it.”

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Amanda Darrach is a contributor to CJR and a visiting scholar at the University of St Andrews School of International Relations. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.