Buying silence?

April 7, 2019

Money can muzzle the truth

Buying silence?

It’s been just a little over six months since the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi walked into the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul and was murdered inside. Investigations have concluded that his body was dismembered by the head of the forensics department of Saudi Arabia’s general intelligence department, and then disposed of. His remains have still not been found and although the media, the Turkish authorities and US legislators initially demanded action against the Saudi Prince who is believed to have ordered the murder, and even though Saudi Arabia eventually did admit its role in the killing, the so- called court proceedings in the case look set to go nowhere.

Eleven men, alleged members of the ‘hit squad’, are on trial in Saudi Arabia but court sessions are not open to the public. Also, conspicuous by his absence among the accused is Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s former communications head, Saif Saad al-Qahtani, who is believed to still be an influential figure in the Kingdom. This has raised concerns that some of the other ‘lesser mortals’ in the case will be made scapegoats.

In addition to this it seems that Khashoggi’s family -- living in Saudi Arabia -- has been ‘persuaded’ into silence in the matter. The Washington Post, the paper Khashoggi was associated with, claimed last week that following the murder and the international uproar surrounding it, Khashoggi’s four children have ‘received homes and multi-million dollar payments from the Kingdom’. According to The Post, they have received houses worth up to $4m each and they are also in receipt of monthly stipends. Presumably, the compensation is to ensure they remain silent -- and not just out of fear or intimidation. The EPA photograph of the Saudi crown prince shaking the hand of Khashoggi’s son, Salah in Riyadh three weeks after the murder is a chilling illustration of the situation: the expressions and body language of the two men are telling -- the prince in a slightly aggressive forward stance, his hand gripping Salah Khashoggi’s wrist, while the latter seems almost to recoil and stays at arm’s length, the expression on his face is defeated and fearful. In the centre of the photo is a Saudi cameraman recording the staged encounter and maximising the official photo op.

The shadow of such intimidation seems to have stretched into Pakistan as well: the ‘authorities’ recently began to probe journalists who posted social media photos of the murdered journalist during the Saudi crown prince’s visit. According to the global media watchdog Reporters without Borders the investigations had been ordered by the Federal Investigation Agency in a letter in mid-March in which it was said that this social media campaign "had conveyed a very disrespectful message" towards the visiting prince. According to this letter the agency had begun inquiries against journalists Matiullah Jan, Murtaza Solangi, Azaz Syed, Ammar Masood and Umer Cheema for this ‘disrespect’. Reportedly, the exiled blogger Ahmad Waqas Goraya was also named in this letter (Goraya was one of the six ‘missing bloggers’ who was picked up, disappeared, detained and interrogated for over four weeks reportedly by military agencies in early 2017).

For most governments, it’s back to business as usual: the US and Britain have resumed their defence and other lucrative links with Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s ‘largesse’ continues to buy silence or sycophancy. Nothing ‘disrespectful’ there….

There has been some outrage about the action against these Pakistani journalists - but probably not enough. Media organisations and old-fashioned journalists might point out that this is a real threat to freedom of the press and free speech in Pakistan, but most people will shrug off such an alarm call by badmouthing the press and accusing them of being dishonest or malicious and wanting to harm the nation’s beloved leader, PM Imran Khan…. The total lack of outrage is perhaps best summed up by the comments of one of my students in Pakistan, an intelligent teenager who in a discussion of the murder and its aftermath expressed the view that ‘lots of people die or are killed so why is such a fuss being made about one man’s death?’ He failed to grasp the notion that the government murdering any of its critics was both unacceptable and against the norms of a civilised society.

But the initial outrage and uproar after Khashoggi’s murder seems to have become diluted with the passage of time. Six months on, The Washington Post, the paper that continues to keep the issue alive, claims that the Saudi government has been making concerted efforts to hack into the phone of the paper’s owner, Jeff Bezos and the intention is to harm him. But for most governments, it’s back to business as usual: the US and Britain have resumed their defence and other lucrative links with Saudi Arabia and the kingdom’s ‘largesse’ continues to buy silence or sycophancy. Nothing ‘disrespectful’ there….


Best wishes,

Buying silence?