Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed on October 2nd.
Khashoggi wrote for the Washington Post’s Global Opinions section and was often very critical of the Saudi Arabian government. He was seen entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2nd to get papers to legally marry his Turkish fiance. He had not been seen since entering the Consulate.
Saudi Arabia said that he had left the Consulate alive and rejected all theories that he was killed until weeks later when they acknowledged his death, claiming he died in a fistfight and that 18 people had been arrested.
Saudi Arabia’s King and President Trump had a phone call on October 15th and Trump then told reporters that the King had denied any accounts that Khashoggi was dead.
The President has stood by the Saudi government saying that their explanations of Khashoggi’s death are credible and that he stands by the Saudi crown prince.
However, on Tuesday October 23rd, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claimed that the murder of Khashoggi was planned. He called for the 18 men arrested in association to the death to be brought to Turkey for trial.
President Trump then described the murder’s cover-up as “one of the worst cover-ups in the history of cover-ups.” He said he plans to leave the issue with Congress to let them decide on what’s best.
Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, told Fox News on October 21st that the murder was a mistake and that the Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, did not order it.
It was reported by Reuters that of the 18 people arrested in suspicion of the murder, 15 were part of a Saudi intelligence hit team.
The New York Times also reported that at least one of the suspects is close to the crown prince.
On Thursday, October 25th, an account was published in a media company owned by Saudi Arabia that acknowledged Turkey’s evidence of the murder having been planned. The attorney general of Saudi Arabia, Shaikh Suood bin Abdullah Al Mo’jab, also said on Thursday that the murder was planned, “The public prosecution received information from the Turkish side through the Joint Working Group between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Turkish Republic, indicating that the suspects in Khashoggi’s case premeditated their crime.”
A reason for Saudi’s switch in stories could be the growing pressure on the US Government to react to the situation. However, the Crown Prince has been one of Trump’s closest allies in the Arab nations.
An opinion article in the New York Times called on the US intelligence to “do its part by gathering and assessing all materials necessary to determine what exactly happened to Mr. Khashoggi and on whose order.”
Saudi Arabia could be worried that the Trump Administration and Congress could stop arms sales with them. That possibility would be unlikely because Trump, despite saying he’d leave it up to Congress, said that it would be “foolish” to cease arms sales with Saudi Arabia.
However, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia could also be trying to keep the US from responding to the situation. He had a phone call with Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and national security adviser, John Bolton, where he called Khashoggi a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that many senior Trump officials, Bolton included, have opposed in the past. The Crown Prince also urged them to not break the Saudi-US alliance.
However, in my interview with Sarah Repucci, the Senior Director of Research and Analysis at the Freedom House, she explained how the Trump Administration “think[s] it’s important to follow what happens in other countries because it’s their perception that that doesn’t affect US interests. Whereas the Freedom House would argue that this very much affects the interests of ordinary Americans because if Saudi Arabia thinks it can kill it’s enemies in another country, someday they could do this here in the United States. ”
On Wednesday, October 31st, Turkey’s public prosecutor said that Khashoggi was strangled and dismembered when he arrived at the Consulate, following a plan to kill him and dispose of the body. The description was given after the prosecutor from Saudi Arabia had left. This statement was the most telling of all previous official statements since Khashoggi went missing on October 2nd.
However, the death of Khashoggi promotes a bigger debate: What does this mean for Freedom of the Press?
According to the Freedom House’s most recent Freedom of the Press report, only 13% of the world’s population lives with free press. A free press country is somewhere that allows “a media environment where coverage of political news is robust, the safety of journalists is guaranteed, state intrusion in media affairs is minimal, and the press is not subject to onerous legal or economic pressures.”
Repucci explained how Khashoggi’s death relates to press freedom, “It’s important to understand that press freedom has been seriously under threat for many years. There was kind of a boom to press freedom when the internet was first developed, and now there’s a reverse of that.”
She continued, saying, “He is part of a trend, and the specific trend that he’s a part of is repressive governments reaching across borders to target their enemies. And the fact that Saudi Arabia saw him as a threat and didn’t target him within their own borders, but actually felt like it was within their right to go after him in another country…It’s not something that is new, but it is something that is the first time we have obvious evidence of it from Saudi Arabia, and it’s part of a trend from more and more countries doing this.”
So does the Trump Administration’s ignorance of the murder indicate a decline in press freedom within the US? Not necessarily, “in terms of press freedom in the United States, I would say the Trump Administration has the most striking impact here in the United States has been a very concerted effort on the part of the administration to undermine trust in media and to make people feel that they don’t know what to believe.”
Trump calling the media the “enemy of the people” has caused a severe distrust in the media and outlets such as the New York Times and CNN. Because of this, the position of the media has drastically changed, “if people don’t know what news they can trust, then it’s almost the equivalent of not having the news at all,” said Repucci.
Moreover, freedom of the press doesn’t just affect the media, it effects democracy. “It’s impossible for a democracy to function if there isn’t a free press, because in order for a democracy to function, people need to understand what their government is doing, so that they can make a decision whether or not they want that government to stay in power.”
Khashoggi’s death is part of a disturbing trend, and represents a larger picture of freedom of the press, a concept that has been declining over the last decade. Regardless of political opinions, journalists should have the right to criticize governments and spread facts without threats to their lives.