By Tarek Cherkaoui
The writer is Manager at TRT World Research Centre and the author of “The News Media at War: The Clash of Western and Arab Networks in the Middle East.” Cherkaoui is an expert in the field of strategic communications.
After almost three weeks of denials and blame deflection, the Saudi authorities finally backtracked on Oct. 19, 2018, announcing that Khashoggi died during a “brawl” inside the consulate on Oct. 2 and that 18 Saudis have been arrested in connection with this case. Moreover, two top aides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), as well as three other intelligence agents, have been sacked.
Regardless of the Saudi version’s dubious veracity, the gruesome murder and likely dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which took place on Oct. 2 inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, convey not only a sinister picture of the Saudi regime but also an extraordinarily poor impression of their media.
It should be noted that the Saudi regime has a long history of kidnapping opponents. Luring dissidents to meetings and kidnapping them appears to be a regularly used tactic. For instance, Naser al-Sa'id, one of the first opposition leaders against the Saudi royal family, disappeared in Beirut in 1979. Similarly, Prince Sultan bin Turki was abducted in Geneva and put on a plane destined to Saudi Arabia in 2003 after calling for reforms in Saudi Arabia. Likewise, Prince Turki bin Bandar Al-Saud, a former police chief, was also snatched overseas in 2015 and rendered against his will to Saudi Arabia.
The tendency to use heavy-handed repressive manoeuvres against Saudi intellectuals and journalists seems to have accelerated since Mohamed Bin Salman (MBS) became Crown Prince. According to The Independent, Saudi authorities planned a similar kidnapping plot against Khaled bin Farhan al-Saud, a Saudi prince living in exile in Germany, just ten days before Khashoggi went missing.
The aforementioned vicious campaign was accompanied by an upsurge in propaganda levels to promote the Saudi regime’s totalitarian line, smear the forces of change, and denigrate their narratives. Ranging from Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel to the Rotana Group conglomerate and the Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), to transnational newspapers, such as the dailies Al Hayat and Asharq Al-Awsat, and the online news portal Elaph, the Saudis have put their media empire at the service of this strategy.
However, despite having built such a massive transnational media empire, media values, journalistic ethics, and press professionalism are not on offer in Saudi Arabia. Suffice to say that Al Arabiya News Channel, which is supposed to be the Saudi flagship media outlet, lost in February 2018 its broadcasting licence with regulator Ofcom in the United Kingdom (UK) after receiving complains that the broadcaster was “violating impartiality code and accuracy in news sourcing”. This is particularly telling, as Ofcom enjoys international respectability for its high standards in maintaining broadcasting codes for programming, with which all broadcasters in the UK must comply.
The Jamal Khashoggi affair is a case in point. The mountain of evidence linking Riyadh to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi was so big that the Saudi media’s fact-free denials for almost three weeks not only turned these media into a laughing stock but also became indictments, as it were, for the Saudi regime in and of themselves.
Instead of providing meaningful information about the disappearance of Khashoggi or even offering substantial counter-evidence that challenges the facts surrounding this affair, the Saudi media’s reaction ranged from total denial and obfuscation to the construction of baseless conspiracy theories.
For example, Jamil Al-Dhiabi, the editor of Saudi newspaper Okaz, stated in an article published on Oct. 9, 2018 that “all those circulating the information about the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi are tweeting in unison almost identical slogans, which indicate that they are involved and accomplices in this crime.” Another columnist for Okaz, Hammoud Abu Talib, tried in the same edition (9 October) to deflect the blame to foreign entities, affirming that the Jamal Khashoggi case “strongly indicates an intelligence operation prepared by intelligence operatives and journalists handled by the Muslim Brotherhood.” In a similar vein, Al-Arabiya.net quoted the chargé d'affaires of the Saudi Embassy in Lebanon as saying that “the Khashoggi theatrical show is a conspiracy and a plot from an intelligence agency that was designed to undermine Saudi Arabia's reputation.”
In parallel, the Saudi media also attacked American and international press for their reporting on Khashoggi. For example, Al-Arabiya website downplayed the reporting from Reuters as “full of contradictions”. Similarly, in an editorial entitled “Black propaganda” and published on Oct. 8, state-owned newspaper Al-Riyadh attacked the Washington Post, lamenting that “the latter turned overnight into a platform for vilifying the Saudi kingdom and denigrating its leadership”. According to this editorial, this media flak indicates “the collapse of the credibility of this media institution and its transformation into a paid space to attack the Kingdom”. For this Saudi newspaper, the only explanation for singling out Riyadh in this affair is “the rising hostility between the Washington Post and U.S. President Donald Trump”.
The bizarre editorial line adopted by the Saudi media vis-à-vis the Khashoggi case has brought ridicule to some of the most passionate advocates of MBS, like Thomas Friedman, the columnist of the New York Times. Hosted by CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour on her show on Oct. 18, 2018, Friedman could not but hide his face in disbelief after hearing some of the ridiculous comments by Saudi media outlets.
When Riyadh began admitting at last some part of responsibility in an agonizingly slow process, the Saudi media, despite having blatantly lied to their public and vehemently accused virtually anybody ranging from the Washington Post and Turkey to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood, barefacedly made a 180-degree turn and offered no apology to their audience or acknowledgement about their pathetic coverage.
All things considered, after spending millions of dollars over lobbying firms and public relations companies, the grisly murder of Khashoggi has tarnished the image of MBS and the Saudi regime for a long time to come. In short, Riyadh has plunged into an international crisis. However, in the battle to shape the international public opinion, the Saudi media, which had little journalistic reputation -- if any -- before the Khashoggi affair, has been at best a worthless fig leaf, and at worst an additional source of embarrassment for Riyadh in this case.* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.