The United States prides itself on protecting its citizens’ constitutional liberties. Recently, the country has shown a reinvigorated fervor for protecting free speech in the name of patriotic loyalty. In contrast, other countries continue to increase censorship and limit freedom of expression, often employing violence to do so. But what happens when one of our key allies acts inherently against our moral code?
Enter into the political theater Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist, self-exiled from Saudi Arabia, walking into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2, never to come out again. Khashoggi gained prominence in the world of Saudi journalism in the 1980s, rising through the ranks of a variety of Saudi news organizations. Due to the close relationship between news and government in the country, Khashoggi soon found himself in the inner circle of the royal family. He remained there for decades until the family turned on him due to his criticisms of President Trump, imposing restrictions on his public appearances and writing. Following self-exile to the United States in 2017, Khashoggi wrote a monthly opinion column for the Washington Post tackling issues that criticized the Saudi government.
Prior to his October 2 visit, Khashoggi had visited the Saudi Arabian consulate on September 28 and was told by officials to return later for documents verifying his divorce so he could legally wed his Turkish fiancée. Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate at 1:34pm on October 2, while his fiancée waited outside. She continued to wait for 10 hours before leaving and returning in the morning, still with no sign of Khashoggi.
The Saudi government denied having any information about Khashoggi’s disappearance for two weeks. In fact, Prince Mohammed stated in Bloomberg News that Khashoggi had left the consulate Further, the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. stated that all reports about Khashoggi’s disappearance or death were “completely false and baseless.”
Eighteen days after his disappearance, Saudi state television directly contradicted earlier statements when they reported that Khashoggi had died in the consulate as the result of a fight. An official described in detail to Reuters that the journalist died “in a chokehold after resisting attempts to return him to Saudi Arabia,” going on to describe a detailed account of the cover-up.
Following this report, 18 Saudi citizens were arrested in connection to Khashoggi’s death, along with the Saudi Deputy Intelligence Chief and an aide to Prince Mohammed. Throughout this time, the Turkish government offered conflicting reports and evidence. On October 9, Turkish officials told the New York Times that they were certain Khashoggi had been killed “on orders from the highest levels” of the Saudi government. In contrast, on October 10, an adviser to President Erdogan claimed that the Saudi state could not be blamed for Khashoggi’s disappearance. On October 11, the Washington Post reported that the Turkish government told U.S. officials it had recordings that inferred that Saudis had “interrogated, tortured, and then murdered” Khashoggi.
Meanwhile, throughout the two-week gray period, President Trump swayed between defending the Saudi government and sharing in skepticism. A bipartisan group of senators demanded President Trump thoroughly investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded by traveling to Saudi Arabia on October 16. On the same day, the United States received a $100 million payment from Saudi Arabia—which the State Department claimed had no connection to the mounting tension. President Trump continued his inconsistent positions, claiming to believe the explanation that Khashoggi had died because of a fight in the consulate on October 20, then three days later describing it as “one of the worst cover-ups in history.”
According to The Committee to Protect Journalists, between 1992 and 2018, 1,324 journalists have been killed on the job—849 of them were murdered. Foreign correspondents are especially at risk due to the complications that often come with reporting from countries with censorship.
Edward Schumacher-Matos, a prize-winning journalist and Director of the Fletcher School’s Edward R. Murrow Center for a Digital World, spoke to the importance of foreign correspondents. “[Foreign correspondents] play a crucial role of reporting the facts about incidents like these and trying to figure out just what happened and why, and reporting on what other governments are doing about it, if anything,” he said.
Foreign correspondents bring an outside lens into societies where free speech is limited. For journalists like Khashoggi, citizenship and personal ties to the country in question can amplify the risks they face. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review six months prior to his disappearance, Khashoggi explained that his reasoning behind leaving Saudi Arabia was driven by fear for his own safety. “I felt that whatever space I had was getting narrower and I decided to leave,” he said. “We never had freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia, it’s true… I was under the risk of either being banned from travel, which would be suffocating, or being physically arrested, just like many of my colleagues.”
Khashoggi’s continued and intensified political criticisms after his self-exile provided a glimpse into failures in the Saudi government that would have remained otherwise unpublicized. Beyond that, the nature of consistent reporting around Khashoggi’s death is an homage to what he died for—it continues to expose injustices and inconsistencies in the Saudi government. Schumacher-Matos noted that “if you see the reporting, we continue to get more and more details about what happened… The more you get this kind of reporting, the more you understand the Saudi government in general, and what’s happening inside that government. It’s not so easy to report on Saudi Arabia. It’s a very controlled society.”
When a journalist is killed simply for criticizing a government, fear heightens. Khashoggi’s criticisms of the Saudi Arabian government, no matter how valid, factually based, and protected under the United States Constitution, led to his death. This murder committed by the Saudi government sets a dangerous precedent and raises questions about the extent to which elites will go to hinder free thought in order to maintain their power.
In those journalists who have passed, but also those who continue to risk their lives to report, we can see Khashoggi’s legacy. Before his disappearance, Khashoggi sent in a column titled: What the Arab world needs most is free expression. The piece detailed the intense need for integrity in journalism and diversity of thought in order to further individual growth. In it, he writes that “Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate.” These efforts of censorship and control cannot succeed. Journalists like Khashoggi and the 1,324 other journalists killed in the last 20 years cannot die in vain.