It has been two weeks since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a insider-turned-critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), has disappeared after walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The Khashoggi story not only sends a chilling message to independent Saudi voices everywhere, it takes Mohammed bin Salman’s well-known intolerance for internal criticism, and the House of Saud’s utter ambivalence to the disapproval of outsiders to a new level.
And it provides yet more evidence of the folly of some in the western media commentariat who have bought into the image of MBS as an enlightened prince and reformer.
“There’s different dimensions to this,” explains Rami Khouri, professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut. “But they all come together in the fact that the current Saudi government has clamped down really hard on … any kind of independent opinion that is not completely echoing the government line. They don’t like it. And they’re trying to stop it.”
News of Khashoggi’s disappearance was initially greeted by silence from the Saudi Arabian government and the media outlets it controls. The story was being driven from Turkey, but not at the political level. The anonymous sources quoted in the Turkish media, the ones who reportedly described an “assassination squad” of 15 Saudis landing on two private jets that same day, were from Turkish police and intelligence.
It was not until day five that the first real signs of a counter-narrative emerged in the Saudi media space – offering a number of possible culprits, none of whom happened to be Saudi.
While Saudi attempts to hijack the online narrative on this story have proven ineffective, past charm offensives aimed at the Western mainstream media have not.
MBS effectively took power fewer than 18 months ago with promises of reform, including his decision to finally allow Saudi women to drive, along with a carefully choreographed media tour in the US. News outlets that are usually sceptical of Saudi propaganda, including The BBC, the Guardian, The Washington Post and the NYT, bought in, producing positive stories and editorials.
“You really have to believe that some of it was a willful ignorance,” says journalist Sarah Aziza. “Thomas Friedman calling MBS the ’embodiment’ of Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, deliberately ignoring the obvious violations of these principles in the arrests of journalists and the crackdown on women activists and other illiberal policies that MBS oversaw.”
According to Khouri, “The lesson of this is don’t fall for these propaganda campaigns when they are presented by Arab governments or any government. Demand facts, demand proof and judge people on their actions and not just their nice words. This is a lesson for journalists everywhere.”
The disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi will resonate with journalists and all kinds of other voices – from activists to dissidents to would-be revolutionaries – and not just in the Middle East.
“Authoritarian governments the world over and even democratic countries as well make these choices. The silencing of voices, the silencing of journalists seems to be a top priority for many governments around the world from the US to Russia to the Arab world,” says Omar al-Ghazzi, assistant professor of media at the London School of Economics.