The silencing of a Saudi truth teller

The disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last Tuesday has drawn the attention of the media world. His reported murder at the hands of Saudi government agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul threatens to spark an international incident. For those who knew him, the uncertainty surrounding his fate is excruciating and his situation serves as a devastating reminder about the perils of speaking out in the face of oppression.

Khashoggi, 59, left Saudi Arabia in June of 2017, going into self-imposed exile after fearing for his freedom amid crackdowns by the Saudi government. He has contributed to The Washington Post for the past year, and his editor there, Karen Attiah, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that Khashoggi just wanted to write. She says that it’s important for people who knew him “to speak out about who he is, what his work meant to Saudi Arabia and to the region as a whole, what it meant to us. And I think it’s really important to know that Khashoggi, Jamal, he didn’t want to be known as a dissident. He didn’t want to be this opposition figure.”

In writing about repression in his home country, however, Khashoggi became one of the most prominent Saudi voices on the international stage. His work for the Post highlighted the downsides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s agenda, and gave lie to the overly credulous reporting on MBS’s image as a reformer. “We never had freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia, it’s true. But also we were never been ordered or told to impose certain ideas, and if you do not say those ideas you will be judged,” Khashoggi told my colleague Jon Allsop earlier this year.

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

On Saturday, the Post reported that Turkish investigators believe Khashoggi was killed in “a preplanned murder.” “If the reports of Jamal’s murder are true, it is a monstrous and unfathomable act,” Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor for the Post, said in a statement.  Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, insisting that he left the consulate shortly after he arrived, but no evidence has been provided to back up this claim. The incident takes place against the backdrop of an international PR campaign by Salman to cast himself as a reformer, and has the potential to complicate US-Saudi relations at a time when President Trump has closely aligned himself with the crown prince.

Khashoggi saw the danger of crackdowns early, writing in his first column for the Post, “I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison,” Khashoggi wrote in September 2017. “I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”

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Below, more on Khashoggi and his work.

  • In his own words: The Post published excerpts from some of Khashoggi’s columns as a tribute to his work.
  • An uncompromising truth teller: David Ignatius writes of his friend and colleague’s “insistent passion for telling the truth about his country, no matter what.” Ignatius has known Khashoggi for 15 years, and writes that he “was a tall, reserved man, austere in the long, white thobe he wore until he went into exile in the United States last year. But in his work, he has always been full of life and daring; he embodied the restless curiosity and refusal to compromise on principle that are the saving graces of our business.”
  • A “provocative journey”: The Post’s Liz Sly profiles Khashoggi’s life, from “travels with bin Laden to sparring with princes.”
  • Growing fears of censorship: Khashoggi spoke to CJR’s Jon Allsop earlier this year, warning against overly optimistic coverage of Mohammed bin Salman’s reforms by American reporters. “They should not see the cup half full—see only the reform,” Khashoggi said. “Yes, he’s fulfilling a promise to purge radicalism in Saudi Arabia. But at the same time he’s not allowing any form of expression, except expression that supports him. That is not good for the country.”
  • Living in fear: Robin Wright of The New Yorker writes that when she spoke to Khashoggi in August, he was concerned for his safety. “Of course, they’d like to see me out of the picture,” he said, referencing the Saudi authorities.

 

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.