Jamal Khashoggi’s Final Words Should Carry Far Beyond The Arab World

Jamal Khashoggi's final column includes a message that should resonate far beyond the Arab world it was addressed to.

This morning, The Washington Post published Jamal Khashoggi’s final column, which was written and had been submitted prior to the time he went missing after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and they constituted words of wisdom not only for the Arab world he is addressing the piece but for the rest of us as well:

The dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul just over two weeks ago, and evidence increasingly suggests he was brutally murdered.

But on Wednesday night, a new piece of his work — submitted by his assistant after he disappeared — was published by The Washington Post, for which Mr. Khashoggi worked as a columnist.

In just over 700 words, his column lamented the dearth of a free press in the Arab world, which he said “is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors, but through domestic forces vying for power.” He sought to promote the free exchange of ideas and information under the headline, “What the Arab world needs most is free expression.

Mr. Khashoggi’s editor, Karen Attiah, wrote a preface to the column. She said she received the file from Mr. Khashoggi’s translator and assistant a day after he was reported to be missing.

“The Post held off publishing it because we hoped Jamal would come back to us so that he and I could edit it together,” Ms. Attiah wrote. “Now I have to accept: That is not going to happen. This is the last piece of his I will edit for The Post.”

(…)

In his column on Wednesday, Mr. Khashoggi wrote that government clampdowns on the press in the Arab world were sometimes met with little resistance.

“These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community,” he said. “Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence.”

In Saudi Arabia, Mr. Khashoggi once served as an adviser to and unofficial spokesman for the royal family. But after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman barred him from writing in the kingdom, he traveled to the United States. He reinvented himself as a prominent critic of the Saudi government — and of Crown Prince Mohammed in particular — and became a resident of Virginia.

On Oct. 2, he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul to pick up a document he needed to get married. His fiancée was waiting outside. But Mr. Khashoggi never came out.

His column on Wednesday was reminiscent of ones he had written before, which often condemned human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. He wrote that he had been reading a Freedom House report on political rights and civil liberties around the world, and it ranked most countries in the Arab world as “not free.”

“As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed,” Mr. Khashoggi wrote. “They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives.”

“As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed,” Mr. Khashoggi wrote. “They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives.”

He wrote about the hopes that had been shattered across the Middle East after Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 failed in several countries. And he wrote about governments’ efforts to imprison dissidents, block internet communication and censor the media.

He suggested the formation of a transnational media outlet — like Radio Free Europe, which was created by the United States government during the Cold War — that could be a platform for Arab writers, reporters and thinkers.

Khashoggi’s column is well worth reading, not only because of what it says to the Arab world but because what he expresses are sentiments that apply universally regardless of nationality:

Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate. There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet. They have also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications.

There are a few oases that continue to embody the spirit of the Arab Spring. Qatar’s government continues to support international news coverage, in contrast to its neighbors’ efforts to uphold the control of information to support the “old Arab order.” Even in Tunisia and Kuwait, where the press is considered at least “partly free,” the media focuses on domestic issues but not issues faced by the greater Arab world. They are hesitant to provide a platform for journalists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen. Even Lebanon, the Arab world’s crown jewel when it comes to press freedom, has fallen victim to the polarization and influence of pro-Iran Hezbollah.

The Arab world is facing its own version of an Iron Curtain, imposed not by external actors but through domestic forces vying for power. During the Cold War, Radio Free Europe, which grew over the years into a critical institution, played an important role in fostering and sustaining the hope of freedom. Arabs need something similar. In 1967, the New York Times and The Post took joint ownership of the International Herald Tribune newspaper, which went on to become a platform for voices from around the world.

(…)

My publication, The Post, has taken the initiative to translate many of my pieces and publish them in Arabic. For that, I am grateful. Arabs need to read in their own language so they can understand and discuss the various aspects and complications of democracy in the United States and the West. If an Egyptian reads an article exposing the actual cost of a construction project in Washington, then he or she would be able to better understand the implications of similar projects in his or her community.

The Arab world needs a modern version of the old transnational media so citizens can be informed about global events. More important, we need to provide a platform for Arab voices. We suffer from poverty, mismanagement and poor education. Through the creation of an independent international forum, isolated from the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda, ordinary people in the Arab world would be able to address the structural problems their societies face.

While Khashoggi was addressing the Arab world in his final column, the ideas that he advances have a universal application that everyone ought to take to heart, especially in an era where freedom of the press and the free flow of information are increasingly coming under attack around the globe. Khashoggi does a good job of summarizing the extent to which Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and others have restricted their citizens access to unapproved sources of information, but this is a common tool of authoritarian regimes around the world. In Russia, for example, journalists and others who have been critical of the regime of President Vladimir Putin have been under attack for years via censorship, imprisonment, and even murder in the streets of Moscow and elsewhere for those who dare to question the regime or the oligarchs that benefit from it. In China, public access to the Internet is censored as are search results for indexing services and news outlets such as CNN International are blacked out when they cover reports that are deemed to reflect negatively on the government in Beijing. Similar reports of attacks on press freedoms are also regular news stories from nations such as Egypt and The Phillippines, both of which are ruled by men that President Trump has openly expressed admiration for since becoming President.

Even in many of America’s democratic allies, there are restrictions on press freedoms that would not be considered acceptable here in the United States. In the United Kingdom, for example, laws such as the Official Secrets Act, as well as defamation laws that make it easier for people claiming to have been defamed by the press to pursue claims against news organizations and journalists. In Canada, laws against so-called “hate speech” have often allegedly be used to silence voices deemed to be “offensive” for reasons that seem to have more to do with politics than anything else. Finally, in the European Union, a court has created out of whole cloth a so-called “right to be forgotten” that allows people to demand that search engines such as Google remove information from their search indices even when that information is accurate.

Here in the United States, the existence of the First Amendment has meant that these types of actions are unlikely to take place, but that doesn’t mean that press freedom isn’t under attack. In fact, it has been on just such an attack for some time now thanks to the rhetoric of the President of the United States.

Trump’s history of attacking the media predates his time as a political candidate. Dating as far back as the 1980s when he first started become the media celebrity he eventually became, Trump would attack reporters and news outlets that reported things that portrayed him in a bad light or which reported on things that he didn’t like. On more than one occasion, for example, he threatened to sue reporters or business publications that called the claims he made about his wealth into question, or which reported that his actual net worth was below what he claimed it was at a given point in time. Most of these threats were never followed through with, of course, and in each of the cases, it was apparent that the news organization in question had a valid basis for the estimates of Trump’s wealth that they were reporting. Nonetheless, the precedent that Trump set back then was obvious. His public image and the mirage of his immense wealth were something that he viewed as being very important, and he would consistently lash out at anyone who contradicted his claims. This pattern remained consistent in the intervening decades, and it’s a script that he’s followed since bursting on the political scene.

Beginning early on in his campaign Trump repeatedly attacks reporters and news organizations that he deemed to be insufficiently obsequious to him or his campaign. These attacks took the form of both banal and empty rhetoric to far more serious attacks on individual reporters. During many of his campaign speeches, for example, Trump would often make the false claim that the cable networks that were routinely following him from campaign stop to campaign stop had “turned off” their cameras even as that same speech was being broadcast live and without commercial interruption. During these speeches, he would repeatedly refer to the media in general and individual reporters particularly in a derogatory manner and encouraged the crowd to turn on the reporters and camera crews covering the events. As several of the reporters who followed Trump around back in those days noted, this would often result in the crowd shouting vile epithets at reporters to the point that they would need to be escorted out of the venue by local law enforcement for their own safety. Several times during the course of the campaign, the Trump campaign banned reporters from covering events because of critical reporting or based on things published on the Editorial or Op-Ed pages of a newspaper. This happened even to reporters from such publications such as The Des Moines Register and The Washington Post, both of which found that their reporters were denied press passes to cover certain events. On another occasion, he had Univision anchor Jorge Ramos physically removed from a press conference when he asked a question about Trump’s position on immigration. Later during the campaign, Trump suggested that the nation strengthen its libel laws in ways that would clearly violate the First Amendment. This rhetoric continued throughout Trump’s campaign right up until Election Day in 2016.

The pattern of attacking the media in this fashion, but it has taken on a far more sinister tone now that he is essentially the most powerful person in the country. Within a month after taking office, for example, Trump called the news media the “enemy of the people” for the first time, a phrase he has returned to several times over the past sixteen months. Last summer, one of his close advisers suggested that the media should be criminally charged for publishing leaked information even when that information isn’t classified. During a campaign rally style speech in Arizona last August, Trump upped his rhetoric by referring to members of the media as “sick people” who “don’t like our country,” and who are “trying to take away our history and our heritage.” That last part, of course, was a reference to the negative coverage that Trump received in the wake of his remarks about the deadly protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. In October, he took to Twitter to threaten NBC with unspecified government action including pulling their broadcast license notwithstanding the fact that broadcast licenses are issued to individual stations, not networks, and that the FCC has no similar licensing requirement for cable networks such as MSNBC. Earlier this year, the President directed his private attorneys to send a “cease and desist” letter to the author and publisher of a book critical of the Trump White House and once again brought up the possibility of strengthening the nation’s libel laws in response to the negative coverage his Administration was receiving. Throughout it all, the President has frequently referred to so-called “fake news,” a label that he applies quite regularly to anything having to do with the Russia investigation among other matters. That label has been picked up by his supporters and sycophants, who are quick to label any news item they don’t like as “Fake News.” Earlier this year, the President admitted the already blindingly obvious when he said that when he refers to “Fake News” he means any news coverage that is critical of him or his Administration regardless of whether it’s true or not. Finally, the President has admitted that the purpose behind all of these attacks on the media is quite simple in that it is aimed at discrediting the media in the minds of his supporters so that they won’t believe any of the bad news that is reported about his or his Administration.

None of this is to say that the situation the news media faces in the United States is as bad as what reporters face in other parts of the world. Even with all of the rhetoric from the President and the screaming hatred from his supporters those words unleash, the press is still free in this country and is likely to stay that way. That’s far different from other parts of the world where reporters put their lives on the line on a daily basis to get the news about what is happening in some of the most dangerous and repressive parts of the world. Nonetheless, as I have said before the extent to which this President has gone to openly attack the media, something unlike anything we’ve ever seen before, and as I have said before there is only one right side in the President’s war on the news media:

A President who calls the news media the “enemy of the American people” is a President who, quite simply, cannot be trusted with power. These are the words of an authoritarian dictator, not the words of the leader of a republic with a Constitution where freedom of speech and of the press are not only enshrined in our Constitution but are also the very lifeblood of American democracy. The fact that it has been reported that the Trump Administration had multiple contacts with Russia during the campaign is most certainly real news, especially in light of what we already know about Russian hacking and apparent efforts to influence the election itself apparently in Trump’s favor. At the very least, these allegations need to be investigated both by law enforcement and by Congress in a fair and efficient manner.  If it weren’t for someone reporting this, we wouldn’t know about it. Just like if it weren’t for reporters we wouldn’t have known about Watergate, or Iran-Contra, or the reports that Hillary Clinton was taking the extraordinary step of using a private email server while Secretary of State. All of these stories were broken first by what the so-called President is calling the “fake” news media.”  This is why I agree with Thomas Jefferson. Given the choice between government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, I will choose the latter. In reality, of course, we don’t want to live in either a world where there is no government or one where there are no newspapers (i.e., news media). They are both essential to the survival of a free society, but as long as we have a government, we need a free and independent media that isn’t being intimidated by a wannabe dictator in the White House. There are two sides in this war between Trump and the media, but only one of them is the right side.

Jamal Khashoggi died because spoke he fought for that side of the argument and because he spoke truth to power. It would be an insult to his legacy for us to allow the same attitude toward the media that has infected authoritarian regimes to take root here.

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, Middle East, Politicians, US Politics, , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. John430 says:

    The entirely legitimate shock and outrage over the disappearance and likely murder of the prominent Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi have so far largely prevented an examination of his views.
    You need to dig a bit further, Doug. The New York Times notes that Khashoggi joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man, and that he “remained conversant in its conservative, Islamist and often anti-Western rhetoric, which he could deploy or hide depending on whom he was seeking to befriend.”
    To put it bluntly, unless you are rooting for an Islamist Middle East, it seems doubtful that Khashoggi’s vision for the region was a big improvement over the agenda of the autocratic Saudis. And while the Times doesn’t cover this aspect, if you were an Israeli, you would only wonder if Khashoggi’s hopes for the Middle East would not have turned you into a refugee – or worse.

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  2. An Interested Party says:

    To put it bluntly, unless you are rooting for an Islamist Middle East, it seems doubtful that Khashoggi’s vision for the region was a big improvement over the agenda of the autocratic Saudis. And while the Times doesn’t cover this aspect, if you were an Israeli, you would only wonder if Khashoggi’s hopes for the Middle East would not have turned you into a refugee – or worse.

    Even if all of that is true, that is no justification for Saudi Arabian thugs torturing him, killing him, and cutting him up into pieces…

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  3. Gustopher says:

    @John430: Assuming that what you are saying is a fair and accurate summary of Khashoggi — a questionable assumption — we would still have to ask: Are we happy with our role in the Middle East if the only options for people there are to support a bloodthirsty and corrupt regime like Saudi Arabia, or support Islamist parties?

    Those are the only two options in most of the Middle East. Syrian have their choice of Bloodthirsty and corrupt government, moderately horrible Islamist rebels, and truly horrible Islamist rebels.

    Does supporting a regime that brutally kills its critics lead to a world where there are actual moderate, secular options? Or real moderate Islamist options (stable enough to not slip into radicalism)?

    We shaped the Middle East, then we reshaped the Middle East with the invasion of Iraq, and we continue to shape the Middle East with our support for our favored dictators. The poor are brutally poor, and held in check by brute force, and that isn’t working. It’s been spilling over to Europe and America in the form of terrorism for the past 50 years or more.

    Our policy in the Middle East has to be more than just support the Shah (or his local equivalent) and hope he hangs onto power. It didn’t work in Iran, it’s not going to work elsewhere.

    Or we can blame the guy who went to his consulate to get papers for his wedding, and got cut up into pieces.

    Also, glance at the pictures of his fiancé (right at the top of this page), and see if you notice something. She wears a head scarf, not a burka or a veil. And look at Khashoggi himself — you wouldn’t notice him anywhere in America. Khashoggi was, by lifestyle, a moderate for that region. Khashoggi wasn’t our enemy, Khashoggi was someone who should be our friend.

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  4. Gustopher says:

    @John430:

    if you were an Israeli, you would only wonder if Khashoggi’s hopes for the Middle East would not have turned you into a refugee – or worse.

    Israel has to find a way to peace with its neighbors — and, with the way they have treated the Palestinians, the onus is on the Israelis.

    Israel has not been helped by our support of dictators, and the subsequent radicalization of the poor throughout the Middle East — the Israelis have been made scapegoats by both the dictators and the radical groups, who claim Israel is more evil than it is. (On a scale of 1 to 10, Israel is about a 6, not the 10 that a lot of the Arab regimes claim).

    We can support Israel, we can protect Israel if we need to, but we can’t let Israel dictate our Middle East policy.

    Israel’s short term goals are stability for the dictatorships nearby that don’t threaten it on a regular basis. Our longer term goals have to be about creating that third option between bloodthirsty dictatorships and Islamic revolution, and that may lead to less stable dictatorships.

  5. Lounsbury says:

    First, this comment of Kashoggi is a bit weird to me:

    Even in Tunisia and Kuwait, where the press is considered at least “partly free,” the media focuses on domestic issues but not issues faced by the greater Arab world. They are hesitant to provide a platform for journalists from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Yemen.

    … I can’t opine on Kuwait, but as journalists in Tunisia have quite a domestic set of problems to digest, giving voice to Egyptians and Saudis, who already dominate the international pan-Arab Sat-TV which dominate the broadcast media hardly seems like a useful priority, particularly when Tunisian problems have about nothing to do with Egyptian or Saudi problems from a practical perspective. It’s somewhat dated pan-Arab Mashreq centrism speaking there. Nevermind Maghrebine concerns (and Arabic discourse) has different concerns…. – somewhat like a New Yorker lamenting that British Columbian Canadian press isn’t giving enough space to New York journos…

    As for this vile ignorant claptrap:
    @John430:

    Doug. The New York Times notes that Khashoggi joined the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man,

    and so the bloody f what?

    The Muslim Brotherhood is hardly the bogey man the Bigot American Christian Supremacists make it out to be, and a Saudi joining the Brotherhood implies relative to Saudi system someone against nepotistic corrupt rule, against Wahhabite Salafism and more for a modernist religious conservatism.

    But making that analysis requires one to actually have a bloody goddamn sense of the social context, and not be a knee jerking bigot (of course helps to know Arabic, but can’t require you monolingual provincials to do too much).

    and that he “remained conversant in its conservative, Islamist and often anti-Western rhetoric, which he could deploy or hide depending on whom he was seeking to befriend.”

    E

    To put it bluntly, unless you are rooting for an Islamist Middle East, it seems doubtful that Khashoggi’s vision for the region was a big improvement over the agenda of the autocratic Saudis.

    to put it bluntly, you’re an ignorant parrot of ignorant clap trap.

    the Ibn Saud continue to promote the most obscurantist nasty rubbish, and while the Brotherhood and its associated and allied movements are hardly goddamn angels, their reformist movements have certainly been a step up from the corrupt nepotism using obscurantism bigotted Salafist masques to blame

    And while the Times doesn’t cover this aspect, if you were an Israeli, you would only wonder if Khashoggi’s hopes for the Middle East would not have turned you into a refugee – or worse.

    What the bloody f*** does f**ing Israel have to do with the subject?

    The MENA region is not the I-P problem and resovling it down to fellating the Israeli hard right due to your Christianist obsessions is an act of drooling idioicy.

    Dragging these smears out to be natter on about a journo who was bloody dismembered in a goddamn allied (in the loose sense of the term) country’s consulate is not just drooling idiotic partisan cretinism, it’s a disgusting lack of morals.

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  6. Lounsbury says:

    @Gustopher: Niqab. Saudi & arab women don’t wear burqa, they wear jilbab and niqab.
    Burqa is essentialy Afghan-Indo-pak

  7. An Interested Party says:

    The unholy alliance between the Israeli right-wing and evangelicals in this country is so totally cynical and destructive…real peace in the Middle East will never happen as long as this union has power…

  8. KM says:

    @John430:
    What happened to “innocent until proven guilty”? You support an extra-judicial murder solely because you *feel* he’s guilty of *something* even if it’s not an actual crime, let alone one with the death penalty.

    All I can say to you is: be careful what you wish for, you will get it. If you’re OK with something like this happening to a “bad person”, be aware they’re plenty of people who consider YOU a “bad person”. Would you want someone to intervene or seek justice on your behalf should karma catch up to you or should we all just sit around bad-mouthing what a terrible person you were and how you deserved what you got?

    Idiots like you can’t see the writing on the wall. Countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia now feel free to kill people in other nations with impunity. Right now they are targeting their own but if no serious measures are taken to stop this, what’s to stop them from lashing out at American citizens they don’t like? You may think this has nothing to do with you only to be unfortunate enough to be standing nearby the next target and get dosed yourself.

  9. aveshoe says:

    He died because he was speaking the truth.

  10. John430 says:

    @Lounsbury: Well, if you embrace the Muslim Brotherhood and luv the Palestinians you are either a troll or a heavy drinker of the Kool Aid.

  11. Lounsbury says:

    @John430:
    Drinker of cool aide would be the person parroting morally bankrupt smears aimed at a journo murdered in a ‘allied’ consulate as a disgusting political apologia.

    The drooling idiocy of dragging in Israel and Palestine merely shows idiot Christianist moral bankruptcy – as does your idiot gambit of mischaracterizing my remarks supra.

    Vile worm.