Khashoggi Murder: a Slap On the face of every Arab journalist

October 21, 2018

If there can be a hero in the saga of journalist Jamal Kashoggi’s murder, that hero would be the press. Or rather, the written press. The Washington Post decided to take the fight to the end. The New York Times joined forces. Countless other Non-American publications followed suit, including The Guardian. At a time when many talk of its demise, print journalism showed a great ability to impact the course of events, and stand its ground in the war on truth waged by leaders like Donald Trump.

From day one, Trump said he would not sacrifice billions of dollars in arms deals with Saudi Arabia for the sake of a non-US journalist. And the first to stop him from proceeding with this unethical choice was the press. 

This is a great teachable moment for us who live in a world where the death bell of journalism is constantly sounded, and where this pessimistic vision was encountered by a shining victory for the written press. 

If journalism had not done its job, who would be able to stand up to Trump when he deviates into his next crime? Unfazed by Trump’s fans’ belief that their hero was right to bargain on Jamal’s murder, journalists pressed on in their pursuit of truth. Their achievement was historic. They redeemed the reckless voter who once saw the future in Trump. They said Trump was a mistake. Yes, it may reoccur. But the man is no more an incontrovertible destiny. 

This time, the battle was not about uncovering the truth; what happened to Jamal was clear from the beginning. But the strife was for the right to declare the truth. Trump started this mendacious war against journalism. And journalists won. 

“The age of the dying press,” then? If this prophecy is fulfilled, who would fill the void? What would become of justice and truth? But this is an absurd prophecy, an unlikely vision. True, journalism is going through a delicate transition, but the need for truth is on the rise, so is the urge to hold accountable deviant leaders like Donald Trump, Mohammad Bin Salman, Bashar Assad and Qasem Soleimani. For if we, justice seekers, die, these men will go on lying and killing with impunity. 

Now let us not ignore the fact that the international press has a history of complicity with politicians. It has often taken positions inconsistent with its values. However, the moment of truth has a power of its own. It cannot be compromised.

A year ago, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman fell into the trap of praising Mohammad bin Salman. In his defense, he could simply have been voicing his own opinion. But as soon as the Istanbul crime took place, Friedman turned against the man he praised, and stated his conviction of Bin Salman’s responsibility in the murder. For if Friedman is the journalist of “the system,” and may compromise on his views sometimes, he will not do so with hard truths. Or else, he would lose his column.  

Some might object that had Turkey not leaked the truth about Jamal’s murder, the western press would still be in the dark about it. There is some truth to that. However, since when were The Washington Post and The New York Times mouthpieces for Ankara? The press can, and probably should, use divisions among governments for the sake of the truth, regardless of whether or not the truth serves the interest of a party involved in other crimes. These are the ABCs of the profession. Unraveling Jamal’s killing does not mean covering up Turkey’s crimes against the Kurds. 

When it comes to Arab journalists, however, this equation leads to tragic failures. Jamal’s death was a calamity that is supposed to affect us the most. Yet, not only were we the least influential in uncovering its circumstances, but our division over the identity of the killer almost jeopardized the whole truth. In a testimony to the tragic losses incurred by the Istanbul murder, writer Ahmed Beydoun said that by standing with Saudi Arabia in Jamal’s case, the supporters of PM Saad Hariri in Lebanon lost their own “slain man.”  

Simply put, our press is financed by authoritarian regimes that commit no less horrendous crimes every single day. If the American press lost no time in confronting Trump from the first day he got elected, it is not because American journalists are more avid for the truth than we are, but because they enjoy a freedom that is the fruit of their institutions being financed by consumers of truth. They want truth to triumph because they know herein lies their own protection. 

Following Jamal’s murder, our dire need for an independent press is felt more than ever. How inspiring it was to see The Washington Post remind Donald Trump that it had driven Richard Nixon out of the White House before! How rewarding to watch it force the president to admit the truth behind Jamal’s killing!

We should never forget that truth ourselves, as we reflect on our failure to uphold it even when the slain was one of our own. 

In their reporting from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, both Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya’s correspondents used Jamal’s murder as a pretext to resume the ongoing diplomatic conflict between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So ferociously were the reporters involved in that war that they totally disregarded the truth. And if Al Jazeera was closer to the truth, it is more because the latter served Qatar, than out of the channel’s eagerness for it. The station’s desire for a victory over Saudi Arabia outweighed its ambition to maintain a certain credibility. We had to constantly fact-check with western media all the updates Al Jazeera was airing. 

On the day Jamal was murdered, Arab media were a sore sight to watch. Denials were flowing fast out of the Gulf and the Egyptian press, while the Qatari media rushed to avenge the Saudi enemy at the moment of its deadly fall. And then between these two camps, Iranian media was only interested in the crime as an opportunity to discredit its foe.  

The tragedy of Jamal’s murder is only paralleled by the tragedy of the Arab media. There is a major lesson here. The need for a press funded by readers is a foregone conclusion. There is nothing utopian or unrealistic about this call. We live in an era where technology offers us all the opportunities we need for an independent media. The costs of production are much lower, censorship is more difficult, and the need for truth is ever-increasing. This is our only chance to stop our press from dying.  

We owe it to Jamal to revive the ethics of our profession. Ignoring our values amounts to a professional suicide. An independent journalism can become a factory and a lab for these values. Revealing the truth about Istanbul crime is one example.  

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