Ja­mal Khashoggi af­fair high­lights what hap­pens when Amer­ica ab­di­cates role as free press de­fender

The Star Malaysia - - World -

HERE’S the most as­ton­ish­ing thing about the dis­ap­pear­ance of Ja­mal Khashoggi, the Saudi jour­nal­ist-in-ex­ile and Wash­ing­ton Post colum­nist, who en­tered his coun­try’s con­sulate in Is­tan­bul a week ago and never came out.

Who­ever gave the or­der to snatch him – and all bets are that it came from Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man (pop­u­larly known as MBS) – as­sumed a renowned jour­nal­ist could be kid­napped or killed with few reper­cus­sions. In the cap­i­tal of a for­eign coun­try.

This stun­ning as­sump­tion tells you much about the grow­ing threats to in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ism in an era of con­spir­a­to­rial web­sites, pop­ulist hys­te­ria, and dic­ta­to­rial crack­downs – and the con­stant Trumpian drum­beat that crit­i­cal jour­nal­ists are the “en­emy of the peo­ple.”

The Khashoggi af­fair is a grim il­lus­tra­tion of how the risk to jour­nal­ists in­creases world­wide when Amer­ica ab­di­cates its role as global de­fender of a free press.

The de­tails of this story so far are shock­ing and still murky.

Turk­ish of­fi­cials have said they think Khashoggi was mur­dered in­side the con­sulate and his dis­mem­bered body re­moved by a Saudi hit squad. There is also the pos­si­bil­ity that the jour­nal­ist was drugged and smug­gled out in two black Saudi diplo­matic limos that en­tered and left the con­sulate the day Khashoggi vis­ited.

Af­ter all, other crit­ics and even dis­si­dent princes have been ab­ducted from abroad and jailed since MBS rose to power.

The mild-man­nered Khashoggi,

was ini­tially a sup­porter of MBS’s bold re­form plans, be­came dis­il­lu­sioned when the prince be­gan jail­ing in­tel­lec­tu­als, busi­ness­men, blog­gers, and writ­ers.

Even though the prince loos­ened re­stric­tions on women, and per­mit­ted them to drive, he jailed sev­eral fe­male ac­tivists, lest they take credit. And MBS’s for­eign ad­ven­tures, no­tably a Ye­men war in which Saudi planes (with US help) were dev­as­tat­ing civil­ians, were a disas­ter.

So Khashoggi at­tempted the role of con­struc­tive critic. Cit­ing him­self and other dis­si­dents, he wrote: “We want our coun­try to

thrive. We are not op­posed to our govern­ment and care deeply about Saudi Ara­bia. Yet we are the en­emy.”

He begged MBS to use diplo­macy to end the bru­tal Ye­men war.

This ap­par­ently was too much for the prince to swal­low. But why might a Saudi leader as­sume he could carry out such a brazen move without tar­nish­ing the Saudi im­age?

Per­haps be­cause he was a close friend of first son-in-law Jared Kush­ner, or be­cause he had been adu­lated by Pres­i­dent Trump, who con­sid­ers the Saudis to be his clos­est Arab Mideast ally.

And per­haps be­cause Trump is so cosy with other lead­ers who are hos­tile to jour­nal­ists and is him­self a fierce critic of main­stream me­dia. Gone is the time when the United States stood in de­fence of press free­doms.

Trump’s re­lent­less at­tack on US news out­lets that cri­tique him, as “fake news” or “en­e­mies of the peo­ple,” has had a neg­a­tive im­pact world­wide.

As the late Sen John McCain put it: “These ef­forts are be­ing closely watched by (re­pres­sive) for­eign lead­ers who are us­ing his words as cover.”

Maybe that in­cludes the Saudi crown prince.

Con­sider these stats: At least 21 jour­nal­ists world­wide were jailed on “fake news” charges in 2017, ac­cord­ing to the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists; the term has be­come a con­ve­nient club for lead­ers in au­toc­ra­cies, and even some sup­posed democ­ra­cies, such as Poland. In­deed, last sum­mer, while de­liv­er­ing a speech on Western val­ues in War­saw, Trump pledged to team up with Poland’s pres­i­dent to fight “fake news.”

Even more damn­ing, Trump has em­braced au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers who openly threaten jour­nal­ists with mur­der, such as Filipino leader Ro­drigo Duterte, or who silently tol­er­ate such mur­ders, such as Vladimir Putin. Twen­tyeight jour­nal­ists have been killed in Rus­sia since Putin be­came pres­i­dent, and three more were re­cently mur­dered in the Cen­tral African Repub­lic, where they were in­ves­ti­gat­ing a Rus­sian mer­ce­nary op­er­a­tion run by a pal of Putin’s.

Yet Trump has re­peat­edly de­fended the Rus­sian leader, in­sist­ing “It has not been proven that he’s killed re­porters.”

In this ugly cli­mate, three jour­nal­ists were re­cently mur­dered in Euo­pean Union na­tions: Malta, Slo­vakia, and Bulgaria. In the first two cases, brave re­porters were in­ves­ti­gat­ing cor­rup­tion linked to high govern­ment of­fi­cials.

So it isn’t sur­pris­ing that it took six days for Trump to say he was “con­cerned” about Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance and for Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo to is­sue an an­o­dyne state­ment.

“If this had been Iran, would there have been this si­lence (un­til now)?” asked Robert Ma­honey, deputy ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists. Not a chance.

So far U.S. jour­nal­ists have been spared, apart from the ter­ri­ble mur­der of five peo­ple by a dis­turbed man at the Cap­i­tal Gazette news­room in An­napo­lis. But the anti-me­dia rhetoric from the White House en­cour­ages the de­ranged, and death threats have been forth­com­ing, no­tably to the Bos­ton Globe.

The Khashoggi af­fair is a warn­ing.

When the United States aban­dons its role as de­fender of the free press, the risk grows to Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists, and those in other coun­tries.

If Trump fails to press MBS for an ac­count­ing, he will add to the im­pres­sion that the United States no longer cares when jour­nal­ists are mur­dered. It could even hap­pen in here in the US. – The Philadel­phia In­quirer/Tri­bune News Ser­vice

Grow­ing threat: If Trump fails to press MBS for an ac­count­ing, he will add to the im­pres­sion that the United States no longer cares when jour­nal­ists are mur­dered.

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