Khashoggi case shows importance of ethical reporting on hostages

Consulate officers at the entrance of Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Photo: Ahmet Bolat/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.

There were several times throughout my early childhood when I thought my father might have died. I picked up on this mostly through osmosis, by listening to the adults around me when they thought I couldn’t hear or understand them. Only once did my mother sit me down and tell me that there was a chance he would not be coming home, as we had been waiting for him to do since the day I was born.

I found out as an adult that, at the time, she had that conversation with me because his captors had not released a video or photographs of him for a concerningly long period and there was strong intelligence indicating a hostage had been killed. Some rumors named my father, Terry Anderson. As the months stretched on with no proof that he was alive, everyone assumed the worst. But the hostage who had been killed was not my father. He was somebody else’s father.

My dad was Middle East bureau chief of the Associated Press when Islamist terrorists kidnapped him in Beirut in March of 1985, three months before I was born. After a lifetime of waiting in limbo, not knowing for certain if my father was dead or just being hurt by the “bad men” who had kidnapped him, I welcomed my dad home in December of 1991, when I was six and a half years old. That was the first time we met.

My father’s story differs completely from that of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who was reportedly abducted and likely killed in his own government’s Turkish consulate on October 2. I mean to draw no comparison between the two cases. To my everlasting gratitude, my father lived to watch me grow up. Most reports indicate that Khashoggi’s loved ones will not be so fortunate, for which I feel immeasurable sadness.

But my experience as the family member of a hostage and, later in life, as the friend of someone who was kidnapped and beheaded by the Islamic State in Syria, informs the way I watch news coverage of kidnappings—particularly those involving journalists. For instance, I know the AP struggled valiantly to balance its responsibility to cover my father’s kidnapping objectively as a news organization with concern for his fate as an employee. The journalistic mission to be the first to break the most impactful story often does not coincide with the need for extreme sensitivity surrounding a hostage situation, but efforts were made by most news organizations not to put my father at risk by publishing things that would endanger him or make his captors angry.

Thirty years later, our hyperactive news cycle has all but obliterated the systematic, careful consideration of consequences when publishing news. At no point has that been more evident than over the past week, with some coverage of Khashoggi’s kidnapping. Most news reports on Monday were quoting Turkish police sources who believed Khashoggi was dead. They described a chillingly efficient assassination engineered by the Saudi government, a shocking attack on press freedom in another country by a US ally. However, Turkish authorities did not officially confirm the results of their investigation until Wednesday and many conflicting reports surfaced indicating there was a possibility he was still alive in Saudi Arabia.

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The journalistic mission to be the first to break the most impactful story often does not coincide with the need for extreme sensitivity surrounding a hostage situation.

 

Even the ghost of a chance that Khashoggi was in the custody of a regime that would not hesitate to use brutal interrogation tactics should have prevented news outlets from publishing confidential information that involved Khashoggi’s criticism of the Saudi government. Yet that is exactly what some journalists did.

On Monday, the BBC aired a conversation with Khashoggi recorded before their official interview, in which he was highly critical of the Saudi government. Presumably, Khashoggi spoke more candidly off-air because he was concerned about the consequences if he were to openly say those things. The BBC didn’t know for certain that Khashoggi was dead, but it still made public an off-air interview that could have put him at risk, with the note, “We wouldn’t normally broadcast an off-air conversation, but we’ve decided to make an exception, in light of the current circumstances.”

A BBC News spokesperson tells CJR, “We took great care in deciding to broadcast Mr Khashoggi’s words and considered the implications carefully. In light of the circumstances, his view that the deteriorating environment for free speech in Saudi Arabia meant he could not return to live there, is important and relevant information. We do not believe this broadcast could endanger him further, especially considering his longstanding criticism of the Saudi authorities, expressed far more stridently in his newspaper columns.”

But Khashoggi chose what appeared in his writings after presumably weighing their potential consequences for himself. What makes this disregard for his wishes even more troubling is that Khashoggi himself was extremely careful not to call himself a dissident and further inflame the Saudis against himself and his family. The fact that he went off the record with journalists for his most severe criticism of Saudi officials like Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (known as MBS), widely seen as the architect behind his disappearance, should be an indication that he was concerned about the repercussions were he to go public with the things he told them.

 

Khashoggi himself was extremely careful not to call himself a dissident.

 

The most egregious offender in this regard is Thomas Friedman, veteran reporter and star opinion writer for The New York Times, who describes Khashoggi as a friend. In November 2017, Friedman wrote a much-criticized column titled “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, At Last,” for which he was lavishly hosted by the Saudi government and spoke only to sources they provided. The thrust of the piece was that Mohammed bin Salman is pioneering a wave of exciting new reforms in the country, which has a beyond dismal human rights record–a hypothesis belied by subsequent reports of brutal crackdowns on activists and dissidents.

Friedman wrote another column on Monday, pleading on behalf of his missing friend. While it had just been reported that the Saudis likely kidnapped and killed Khashoggi, his death had not yet been confirmed and conflicting reports that claimed he was alive were continuing to pop up. Despite this, Friedman revealed Khashoggi as an anonymous source of his in the very first paragraph of his column, going on to describe the extent of Khashoggi’s critical stance on Saudi Arabia, much of which had yet not been made public.

In a statement to CJR, Friedman said, “I gave great thought to the matter and decided in the end to reveal Jamal’s quote because it showed what he truly was—a Saudi patriot who wanted to improve the government, not topple it. I thought that was important for the world to know and for every Saudi to know—whether he was dead or alive at the time of my writing.”

Friedman’s piece has been characterized by some critics as a lengthy justification of his original laudatory column about MBS rather than an earnest attempt to draw attention to Khashoggi’s fate. Putting that aside, I cannot understand why an experienced reporter would be careless with the welfare of his missing friend. Evidence indicating Khashoggi was killed continues to mount, but I can personally attest that no shred of hope is too small for the loved ones of a hostage. Khashoggi’s family, friends, and fiancée deserved better than to watch helplessly as news outlets published information that could have hurt the man who was stolen from them.

RELATED: Jamal Khashoggi, feared murdered, on press freedom in Saudi Arabia

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Sulome Anderson is a journalist based between Beirut, Lebanon, and New York City. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Atlantic, New York magazine, Newsweek, NBC News, Esquire, and Harper's. Her book The Hostage’s Daughter was published by HarperCollins in 2016.