Pessimism and optimism one year on from Jamal Khashoggi’s death

A year ago today, in the early hours of the morning, a private jet carrying assassins on Saudi Arabia’s payroll landed in Istanbul. An expert on dissecting bodies joined them later. They waited at the Saudi consulate for the arrival of Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident writer from the country; Khashoggi needed to sort some paperwork regarding his impending marriage to Hatice Cengiz, who was waiting outside. Inside, one of the assassins told Khashoggi they had come to take him back to Saudi Arabia. A struggle ensued. According to a recent report in a Turkish newspaper, Khashoggi said, “Do not keep my mouth closed. I have asthma, do not do it. You’ll suffocate me.” He said nothing after that. The assassins reportedly hacked Khashoggi’s body to pieces with a bone saw. It’s still not clear what they did next. They may have dissolved Khashoggi’s remains in acid, Turkish officials said. Or they may have incinerated them.

A story that started with concerned murmuring about a disappearance has since become a major, long-running scandal about state-sanctioned murder. In the months following Khashoggi’s death, reporters unearthed new details about what happened to him and who ordered it, and cast a broader light on the Saudi regime’s tools of repression. The story continues to hold our attention. In the past week alone, PBS and CBS released interviews with Mohammed bin Salman, the powerful Saudi crown prince known as MBS; he reiterated that he did not order Khashoggi’s killing, even though investigators in the US and elsewhere concluded that he did.

ICYMI: News knowledge as inoculation

In spite of this attention, justice has remained elusive. “To those of us who knew Jamal, the year-long slow-drip release of details has been agonizing,” Karen Attiah, an editor at the Washington Post, where Khashoggi worked as a contributor, writes. “I would console myself thinking that the calculated release of information would help lead to justice. Now, the latest releases feel more like morbid attempts to titillate the public and score political points, rather than honest pursuits of accountability.” Writing in the same package about Khashoggi, David Von Drehle, a Post columnist, is similarly pessimistic. “Journalism that changes the world is rare,” he says. “More common is journalism that changes nothing.”

Such pessimism is justifiable. In the year since Khashoggi’s death, MBS has escaped immediate personal accountability: he remains the heir to the Saudi throne; on the international stage, Donald Trump has stood steadfastly beside him, wantonly ignoring the conclusions of his intelligence services. Dissidents and journalists are still in prison in Saudi Arabia. There’s still a war in Yemen, and it’s still being fueled by Western arms sales to the Saudis. (In the spring, the Trump administration sold weapons worth $8.1 billion to Saudi, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.) Next year’s meeting of the Group of 20 nations is still scheduled to be held in Riyadh.

It’s wrong, however, to say that Khashoggi’s death, and the coverage of it, changed nothing. The US Congress has repeatedly rebuked the Saudi regime—an unusual stance made even more unusual by its bipartisan support. Last October, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee triggered a provision in the Global Magnitsky Act demanding that the president formally attribute blame for Khashoggi’s killing; in December, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution holding MBS responsible, and voted to curtail US support for the war in Yemen. (Trump vetoed that legislation, and simply ignored the request under the Magnitsky Act.) As my colleague Zainab Sultan reported last month, Khashoggi’s death caused coverage of Yemen—long woefully inadequate—to spike in the world’s media. And, perhaps most importantly, it has trashed the reputation of MBS in the court of global public opinion, decisively banishing his carefully manicured presentation as an enlightened reformer. As Martin Chulov, Middle East correspondent for The Guardian, writes this morning, that will have real consequences in the region going forward. “Rarely in modern history has the death of one man been so consequential,” he writes.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

None of this amounts to justice. But in an age marked by the routine, unpunished abuse of journalists around the world—in which shocking things we learn about are quickly forgotten amid fresh crisis—there is something bleakly heartening in the fact that we remember Jamal Khashoggi. How many murdered journalists, on the anniversary of their death, get a special section in the Washington Post? There are plenty of possible reasons why Khashoggi’s killing is different—the brazenness of the crime; the grizzliness of the details; his ties to the Washington establishment. Whatever the reasons, his death somehow captured our imagination and our outrage. Let’s hope we still remember him this time next year.

Below, more on Jamal Khashoggi:

  • “I always pushed the envelope”: In March 2018, I interviewed Khashoggi for a broader feature on coverage of Saudi Arabia. After his disappearance, CJR published the transcript in full. “In America, you take freedom for granted,” Khashoggi told me, of previous regime censorship of his work. “But, if you can imagine, how would you feel if you were told by somebody that you are not allowed to write? It is so insulting, for a writer.”
  • “Silence is not an option”: Last week, Steve Coll, dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, hosted a panel discussion with Cengiz, who was engaged to Khashoggi; Agnès Callamard, who investigated Khashoggi’s death for the United Nations; and Lina al-Hathloul, whose sister Loujain, a women’s rights activist, is in jail in Saudi Arabia. You can watch it here.
  • Shades of gray: The Post’s Khashoggi package is worth reading in full, but one contributor is controversial: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, where Khashoggi was murdered. Erdoğan has won plaudits for his firm response to the crime—but Turkey is the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Predictably, that fact is omitted from Erdoğan’s op-ed. In March, I argued for CJR that the Post shouldn’t let Erdoğan in its opinion pages without adequate context.
  • A remembrance: If you’re in the DC area, the Committee to Protect Journalists and partner organizations are holding a candlelight vigil in Khashoggi’s memory from 6:30pm today outside the Saudi embassy. More details here.


Other notable stories:

  • Times reporters Michael D. Shear and Julie Hirschfeld Davis shared reporting from their book Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration, which is out next week: the president, they write, suggested fortifying his border wall with a snake- or alligator-filled trench; electrifying the wall and topping it with spikes that could pierce human flesh; and shooting migrants in the legs “to slow them down.” On Twitter, Slate’s Ashley Feinberg shared a gripe: “Gonna go ahead and say that if you know the president said in a meeting that we should be shooting migrants in the legs ‘to slow them down’ you should not be saving that for whenever your book is scheduled to come out!”
  • Casey Newton, of The Verge, obtained audio of meetings between Mark Zuckerberg and employees at Facebook. In one clip, Zuckerberg pledges legal action should Elizabeth Warren become president and try to break the company up. (“At the end of the day, if someone’s going to try to threaten something that existential, you go to the mat and you fight.”) In another, he pushes back on the idea that he should testify before foreign legislatures: “I’m not going to go to every single hearing around the world.” Later, Zuckerberg shared Newton’s article on Facebook, telling followers to “check it out.”
  • Yesterday, an appeals court mostly backed the Federal Communications Commission’s revocation of Obama-era net neutrality rules, a decision critics say compromises the principle of an open internet and favors telecoms companies and rich content providers. The court did rule, however, that the FCC overstepped its authority when it barred states from making their own replacement rules. The Post’s Tony Romm has more.
  • Vice is closing in on a takeover of Refinery29, a media company focused on a young female audience, the Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin and Shalini Ramachandran report. Some of Refinery29’s founders and managers are likely to stay on after the takeover. CNN’s Brian Stelter hears Refinery29’s valuation is less than $500 million.
  • According to a Morning Consult poll provided to Axios, 12 of America’s 15 most polarizing brands—as measured by a favorability gap between Democrats and Republicans—are media companies. Trump Hotels tops the list, but is followed by CNN, Fox News, the Times, NBC News, and MSNBC. Sara Fischer has more.
  • Some closures for your attention: the Journal Tribune, a newspaper in Biddeford, Maine, is shutting down this month; six staffers will be laid off. The Journal-Herald, a family-owned paper in Waycross, Georgia, is shuttering, too. And the Newseum, a financially struggling museum devoted to the news business, confirmed it will close its current location in Washington, DC, on December 31. It plans to reopen elsewhere.
  • Meghan Markle is suing the Mail on Sunday, a British tabloid, after it published one of her private letters; per the BBC, the suit rests on misuse of private information, copyright infringement, and breaches of Britain’s Data Protection Act. In an unusually candid statement, Prince Harry, Markle’s husband, said his “deepest fear is history repeating itself”; his mother, Princess Diana, was hounded by paparazzi prior to her death in 1997.
  • In Singapore, a troubling law ostensibly targeting “fake news” comes into force today, ahead of anticipated elections in the coming months. The law requires internet platforms to correct or remove information the government deems to be false, and imposes stringent penalties, including lengthy jail terms, on individuals deemed to be spreading it.
  • And in the UK, Boris Johnson has been accused of making public statements with the intention of manipulating Google search results. (He recently called himself a “model of restraint,” the theory goes, to steer searches for “Boris Johnson model” away from allegations of impropriety with an American model.) For Wired, Chris Stokel-Walker writes that such a strategy, even if intentional, is unlikely to work in practice.

ICYMI: Five tips for journalists on covering trans and nonbinary people

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.