A protester wears a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman with painted hands next to people holding posters of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during the demonstration outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 25, 2018. (AFP/Yasin Akgul)
A protester wears a mask depicting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman with painted hands next to people holding posters of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during the demonstration outside the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 25, 2018. (AFP/Yasin Akgul)

Saudi control of Arab media, lamented by Khashoggi, shapes coverage of his death

It is a cruel irony that Jamal Khashoggi’s last unpublished column for The Washington Post was a call for press freedom in the Arab world. His homeland, Saudi Arabia, has spent the last three decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure that never happens.

The House of Saud controls the flow of information like the flow of oil upon which it is built. For evidence, look no further than the reaction from Arab ministries and media as the Turks dribbled out details of Khashoggi’s murder inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

It moved from deafening silence, through acknowledgement, to eager embrace of Riyadh’s jaw-dropping initial “explanation” of how the 59-year-old entered the mission to obtain papers to marry but never came out, because he picked a fistfight with a rogue, 15-man team flown in especially from Saudi Arabia to confront him. (That explanation came after two weeks of denying any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts, and days before the kingdom admitted his killing in the consulate was “premeditated.”)

Riyadh’s key regional allies–the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain–issued statements in support of Saudi Arabia’s ridiculous stance on the murder. Questions, let alone condemnation, failed to emerge from other Arab capitals. State media and Saudi-owned private pan-Arab television channels and newspapers toed the line. Saudi’s army of trolls, described in detail by The New York Times, took to social media to defend the kingdom and smear its critics.

The main skeptical media voices in the region came from Turkey and its ally Qatar, which owns broadcaster Al-Jazeera, and which is in the middle of a dispute with its neighbor over what Riyadh calls Doha’s support of terrorism and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Doha’s ties with Saudi archrival Iran.

All this comes as no surprise. The space for critical reporting has shrunk since businessmen close to the royal family began a strategy of spreading Saudi media influence across the Arab world after the first Gulf War in 1991 through acquisitions and the setting up of satellite channels such as the Middle East Broadcasting Center in London.

Before then, there was competing ownership of Arab media among Libya, Iraq, and the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia. Independent journalism was tightly constrained, of course, particularly within Arab states, before Riyadh began its transnational censorship and image-making project. Saudi-affiliated Arabic-language newspapers, websites, news broadcasters, entertainment companies, and music labels now dominate the region’s news and cultural landscapes. Saudi aid and investment bolster governments like those of Egypt, Jordan, or Lebanon and close the circle of political and cultural influence.

Riyadh was so sure of itself as the regional media mogul that last year it rallied its allies to demand that Qatar shut down Al-Jazeera. The channel was the main Arabic-language outlet contradicting the Saudi-ordained line in its coverage of the kingdom’s deadly involvement in the war in Yemen and on the crown prince’s sequestering of Saudi politicians and businessmen in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh under the guise of battling corruption. Mohammed bin Salman even lured, then according to The Washington Post locked up in the hotel, the prime minister of Lebanon for failing to advance Saudi foreign policy goals. He was only freed after French intervention.

Riyadh has never really had to worry about its national media questioning the monarchy’s rule. CPJ classed Saudi as the third most censored country in the world after North Korea and Eritrea in its last report on the world’s most censored countries three years ago.

Furthermore, the kingdom lavishes fees on media consultants, public relations firms, think tanks, and lobbyists to burnish its image in Western countries and, in the year leading up to Khashoggi’s murder, to spin the image of its emerging de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed, as a youthful social and economic reformer.

Khashoggi, who had worked both as a journalist and a government aide deep within the folds of the royal household, saw through the spin. His reporting angered the 33-year-old prince and he was told to stop his criticism and stop tweeting to his nearly 2 million followers. Khashoggi saw the writing on the wall and went into exile in the United States to continue his commentary from the global perch of The Washington Post, which presumably irked the young ruler even more. His first column for the Post on September 17, 2017, was headlined: “Saudi Arabia wasn’t always this repressive. Now it’s unbearable.”

In his final draft column for the paper, Khashoggi lamented that the hope of a free press engendered by the “Arab Spring” of 2011 was a false dawn. Only one country in Freedom House’s 2018 report was classified as “free,” he wrote, and that was Tunisia where the popular challenge to the region’s autocrats and dictators began. All the other Arab countries did not enjoy a truly free press.

“A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative,” Khashoggi wrote of the Arab world. “Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.”

His fears are backed by the data. Life for independent journalists, whether covering the region or individual countries, has grown more dangerous and restrictive since Egyptians took to social media to call for the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, CPJ research shows. In the month before Tahrir Square, CPJ counted 13 journalists in jail for their work throughout the Arab world. Seven years later, in December 2017, that number had nearly quadrupled to 48. CPJ estimates the number will be even higher by the end of this year.

Egypt, long a cultural and media hub for the Arab world, had one journalist behind bars seven years ago. But since the 2013 coup that overthrew an elected Muslim Brotherhood government, the Saudi-backed administration of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cracked down on independent media. At the end of last year 20 journalists were in prison. This year arrests have continued, and the number behind bars could now be closer to 30.

The number of imprisoned journalists also illustrates the growing repression in Saudi Arabia. Reporters behind bars went from one before the “Arab Spring” to seven in 2017, when the crown prince began to assert his authority. This year, CPJ is looking into at least seven additional detentions. In his last unpublished column, Khashoggi warned that the arrest in January of Saleh al-Shehi, a columnist for the al-Watan newspaper that Khashoggi once edited, showed that Mohammed bin Salman had turned his wrath against mainstream Saudi journalists. Previously only at those on the margins were the principal target, for their coverage of secularism and of protests in the kingdom’s restive Eastern Province.

Any hopes that social media would bring a flowering of independent pan-Arab reporting and blogging have been dashed. Arab governments have learned how to censor and filter social media, and if that fails they simply lock up their Twitter and Facebook critics.

Khashoggi ended his Post article with a call for the creation of transnational Arabic-language media that could transcend national government control and break down barriers. Khashoggi wrote: “We need to provide a platform for Arab voices.”

Tragically, assassins from the country that has the biggest such platform made sure Jamal Khashoggi will never get to realize his ambition. It is now up to us to keep up the public pressure for justice–to ensure that those who murdered him, and those who directed the murderers, do not also kill his dream.