Disappearance of a journalist

October 21, 2018

When fingers are pointed at states or state operatives for a case like Jamal Khashoggi’s, it often ends up in a major ‘cover-up’

Disappearance of a journalist

There is still no news about Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared from the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on October 2. As I send my copy on Wednesday, it appears we may not get any good news about him by the time this article is published. There is nothing left for his family and community except hope. One thing is certain: the story will not die any time soon.

Deadline is an important part of a journalist’s life but when you become the story, it is filed by fellow colleagues who have to meet the ‘deadline’.

No one knows what exactly happened with Khashoggi and why? It has now become a global issue and a far bigger story than the one he might be working on. It involves three countries, Saudi Arabia (SA), Turkey and United States, and journalist community all over the world, with media watchdogs expressing concern over the safety of journalists.

Khashoggi’s disappearance has raised many questions. It has now become a diplomatic issue as well; apart from the existing strained relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia, there is rising pressure on the Saudis from the United States up to the level of the President, Donald Trump.

Last time any journalist’s disappearance became such a global issue was the disappearance and brutal murder of Wall Street Journal’s South Asia correspondent, Daniel Pearl. The only difference between the two was that Pearl’s case was said to have involved non-state actors. In Khashoggi’s case, the state operatives are suspect who allegedly came from SA, either to investigate the journalist or to teach him a lesson.

There has been an unprecedented rise in the cases of disappearance and killing of journalists all over the world. Pakistani journalists are particularly worried about his disappearance as they too have been victims of such incidents. Only on Monday, a journalist Sohail, working for a local tv channel Kay2, was shot dead, allegedly by people involved in drug trade.

The death toll of journalists has now reached 120 killed in the last 15 years. Some of the most high profile cases include that of US reporter Daniel Pearl, Hayatullah Khan, Saleem Shahzad and Wali Khan Babar. The nature and circumstances of all four murders were different but they were all linked to the journalists’ work and these journalists were killed in the line of duty.

Daniel Pearl’s story is not over yet, and appeals of the convicts including Ahmad Saeed Sheikh alias Sheikh Omer and three others are pending in the Sindh High Court since 2002. The inquiry reports of Saleem Shahzad and Hayatullah Khan are now closed like any ‘classified document’. Wali Babar’s case is the most unique as nine key witnesses of the case were assassinated one by one. There is a long list of such cases and the issue of impunity against journalists’ murders has remained, even under the three democratic governments since 2008.

In Khashoggi’s case, the motive behind his disappearance is still a mystery, particularly the manner in which he went missing after he was last seen on the CCTV camera, entering the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. There is no footage released about him leaving the Consulate, which led to the possible suspicion of the alleged involvement of the Saudi officials.

The story never dies and must not die with the death of a journalist. It becomes a fresh story with a new angle. Which particular story was Khashoggi working on? That story must be completed and reported.

Early this week, the Turkish Investigators visited the Saudi Consulate and took footprints and also inspected the area. There is still no evidence or proof whether he is alive or not. Secondly, if he is dead or has been killed, the question is where and how. Who are the people specially flown from SA for this very purpose?

When non-state actors act or kill someone, the state reacts and acts. But when fingers are pointed at the state or state operatives, it raises questions about the state’s responsibility to protect the life of its citizens. Such cases often end up in a major ‘cover-up’. I am afraid we might not be able to find the whole truth in Khashoggi’s case as well.

The states or governments often use terms like ‘classified’, ‘crossing the red line’ or ‘national interest’ to protect their interest. No story is worth more than someone’s life but at times journalists have filed reports at great personal risk and faced deaths.

A contributing columnist for the Washington Post, Khashoggi had filed many stories for this paper and for others, some of which were critical in nature and were allegedly not liked by the Saudi establishment. He was among the few journalists who had interviewed the founder of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden. It is not known what was the story or special assignment he was last working on.

Some reports in the world media suggest that the Saudi government is likely to issue a statement on him in a bid to defuse the situation and, more importantly, to satisfy the US and Turkey. Now, if they confess that he had died during investigation or interrogation, it would still be important to know about the nature of the probe and where the journalist was buried.

The story never dies and must not die with the death of a journalist. If it is confirmed that he is no more, it is important to know on what charges was he detained or questioned in the first place? Was he tortured to death or died a natural death like a heart attack during investigation? If he was tortured, how badly was he hurt ? All these questions could be raised once the body is recovered and goes through autopsy.

It reminds me of a famous film of the 1980s, Missing, a true story about a journalist’s disappearance in Latin America. It was about a father of a slain journalist looking for the whereabouts of his son after he went missing. He could not get justice as the investigation was closed after being declared ‘classified’.

It may not be an easy investigation as no one knows whether he is still alive or dead. It is important for the Saudis to provide evidence that he had left the Consulate.

Disappearance of a journalist