Episode 3 — Khashoggi: Killing the Messenger

Mehdi Hassan: [00:00:03] Joining me now to debate this are Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist and former royal family adviser currently self exiled in Washington D.C., who has said the Crown Prince is acting like Putin and becoming Saudi's own supreme leader. Why are you in quote unquote self exile? Explain that to our viewers.

Jamal Khashoggi: [00:00:22] Simply because I don't want to be arrested.

Imtiaz Tyab: [00:00:27] That's Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the Al Jazeera program Up Front in March. He says he was afraid of getting arrested, but he didn't foresee how much danger he was really in. One month ago, on Tuesday October 2nd, he entered the Saudi consulate in Turkey. He was killed there.

News presenter: [00:00:46] Jamal Khashoggi's name is trending worldwide and has been since he disappeared two weeks ago.

News presenter: [00:00:51] He was not necessarily a dissident. I disagree with that description.

Donald Trump: [00:00:56] I know nothing. I know what everybody else does, nothing.

News presenter: [00:00:59] At the same time reports began to filter out that a journalist was killed by mistake.

IT: [00:01:07] I'm Imtiaz Tyab. And this is The Take, where we break down major international news one story at a time. This week, killing the messenger.

IT: [00:01:19] For weeks now the Khashoggi affair has held the attention of the world. But the story is especially important in the Middle East. Producer Jasmin Baoumy works out of the headquarters of Al Jazeera English in Doha. She's watching the story unfold in the newsroom there.

Jasmin Baoumy: [00:01:38] Uh are we good to go to Leah? OK let's get started.

IT: [00:01:41] And this week, she sat down with the man in charge.

Salah Negm: [00:01:45] My name is Salah Negm. I'm the director of news in Al Jazeera English Channel.

IT: [00:01:54] Salah Negm is a towering figure in Arab broadcasting. He's launched and run major newsrooms around the world including at the BBC and the Saudi owned Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera's main rival in the Middle East. He's been leading the Al Jazeera English newsroom for nearly nine years now. And like so many journalists in the region, he knew Jamal Khashoggi.

SN: [00:02:17] I knew him as a colleague. I met him several times in different places and different networks and I respect his journalism very much and his character. He was a very kind person and very nice to be with.

News presenter: [00:02:33] Khahshoggi left Saudi Arabia last year as the government began its recent crackdown on dissent, arresting clerics, intellectuals, activists and businessmen.

SN: [00:02:42] The first thing you think, it might have been a misunderstanding. He went out, no one saw him. I think the second day or the third day we realized that there is something hugely wrong that happened.

IT: [00:03:00] The Washington Post broke the story of Khahshoggi's disappearance in Istanbul, but it took a few days for the worldwide media to pick it up. And that's when the leaks began. They were mostly coming from Turkish officials and state owned media in Turkey.

El Shayal: [00:03:18] Pretty much certain according to the sources that have spoken to Al Jazeera, Martine. Police officials here as well as other security apparatuses are indeed looking at this as a murder investigation.

IT: [00:03:32] All those leaks were pointing to the same conclusion. That Khashoggi was dead. Turkish officials started talking off the record about the existence of audio recordings and of live streams of the killing from inside the Saudi consulate. They said there was a bone saw, a body double. They also released pictures of what's alleged to be a 15 man Saudi assassination squad arriving at Istanbul's airport.

News presenter: [00:04:01] The original lineup was first published in the Turkish pro-government Sabah newspaper. New York Times says it's identified that some of them may have links to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

IT: [00:04:14] At first, the Saudis denied it all. Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he's often called, said Khashoggi had left the embassy alive. But with every new piece of information, Saudi officials kept changing their story. Until...

Adrian Finnegan: [00:04:29] Hello Adrian Finnegan here in Doha. The top stories this hour on Al Jazeera. The Saudi prosecutor's office says the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was premeditated.

SN: [00:04:45] There were pieces of information coming from several sources. Turkish security sources, Turkish political sources. Some information coming from Saudi Arabia. Reactions from the United States. And we have to follow all that.

JB: [00:05:02] Let's talk about those sources. From what I've seen in our coverage it's it's a lot of Turkish sources have told Al Jazeera x y z. It's kind of the leading line at this point. And so how do you assess what information, what of all of this information that comes out, which is clearly Turkey controlling the narrative, how do you decide what to believe and what not? And how do you decide which facts you pick up and which ones you don't?

SN: [00:05:27] We are reporting the news. Turkish, Turkey controlling narrative or United States controlling narrative, that's not our work. Our responsibility is to try as much as possible to see whether this information is accurate and factual, or we'll say, but we couldn't verify that. And we are working to verify whether this is factual or not.

IT: [00:05:53] So, here's what we know. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone on the record confirming nearly all those early leaks. He's putting pressure on the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Now there's an irony here. According to a report last year from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey is the largest jailer of journalists in the world. Now Europe, the U.S. and the U.N. are all calling for answers. Two investigations are under way. Turkey is leading one. And Saudi Arabia is conducting its own. There have been arrests but so far no body.

IT: [00:06:25] The Kingdom's allies in the Arab world, and there are several, are lining up behind the Saudis. There are a lot of unanswered questions for reporters to dig into. Turkey is a relatively easy place to report from as a journalist. Saudi Arabia is a different story. That goes for all media outlets, but especially Al Jazeera.

JB: [00:06:49] Considering that Al Jazeera is funded by the Qatari government and Qatar is currently under a land, sea, and air blockade by Saudi Arabia and a bunch of other countries, we clearly don't have journalists inside of Saudi Arabia right now. How do you make up for not having somebody inside the country?

SN: [00:07:07] Journalists inside Saudi Arabia are not very much free to report. So I believe it doesn't make a big difference.

JB: [00:07:16] Other Arab media outlets like Al-Arabiya or the Saudi Gazette or some Egyptian media outlets are being critical of Al Jazeera right now. Is it fair to say that our channel's connection to the Qatari government has made Al Jazeera a target for accusations of bias?

SN: [00:07:36] No. It's not only Al Jazeera that's attacked. BBC, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, and they say that they're all bought by Qatar government which is rubbish of course. Someone on another channel claimed that Qatar has bought 50 percent of the Washington Post, which is a lot of really I don't want to describe it but that's- it's misinformation and it's a lie. Simple as that.

JB: [00:08:05] In a recent New York Times article there was an analyst voice who said that the backlash over Khashoggi's murder might be the biggest event in the region since the Arab Spring. You led the newsroom during the Arab Spring. You've seen what it's like. Would you agree with that assessment?

SN: [00:08:21] I wouldn't agree or disagree. Get an analyst and ask him the question.

IT: [00:08:30] So we took him up on that advice.

Rami Khouri: [00:08:34] The real measure of whether the Khashoggi case is to be equated to the Arab uprisings, the real measure is going to come when we see if the initial backlash leads to practical policy changes that hurt the well-being of Saudi Arabia.

IT: [00:08:52] Rami Khouri is one of the most knowledgeable Middle East analysts out there. He's been a journalist for nearly 50 years. The Washington Post, the Financial Times, the BBC, NPR and of course we at Al Jazeera often call on him to help us better understand the region.

RK: [00:09:09] You know, one important factor here is that the American government has put Saudi Arabia at the heart of all the important policies that the U.S. is trying to achieve in the Middle East. Linking it with Israel for Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. They see the Saudis as leading the fight against terrorism in the region. They see the Saudis as leading the fight to push back Iran. And if the Crown Prince is removed, then this shatters every single foundation of American foreign policy in the Middle East at least for the moment. But it all depends on the nature of the practical backlash rather than just the rhetoric that we have coming out now.

IT: [00:09:59] We have a lot more with Rami. But first a quick message.

JB: [00:10:05] Hi there. I'm Jasmine and I produced this episode of The Take. Now I know, I know, no one really likes to fill out a survey. But our team at The Take, we want to create a podcast that you're really into. And in order to do that, we need to know what you think. So just take three minutes or so to fill out the survey that's linked in the episode description on your podcast app and give us some honest feedback. All right enough of me. Back to the show.

IT: [00:10:37] I've known Rami Khouri for a few years now. I first met him while I was living in Lebanon as a correspondent for Al Jazeera English. He teaches at the American University of Beirut and I'd often go to his office there. We'd hang out, drink coffee, and talk about what was going on in the Middle East and beyond. I could listen to him all day. Now a bit of background on Rami, he's Palestinian Jordanian and American. And just like Jamal Khashoggi, he's been maneuvering the political landscape in the Middle East as a journalist. They had a lot in common, so it comes as little surprise that they knew each other.

RK: [00:11:13] I got to know Jamal initially because I used to read some of his material now and then and then we would meet in conferences occasionally. Once he invited me to go to his son's wedding which took place in the mountains of Lebanon. And that was a joyous occasion. And we just kept in touch by email. Both of us felt that it was the best thing we could do was to stay inside the Arab world and try from within to expand the parameters of liberty and pluralism in the media. What was allowed to be written. What was acceptable to be written. And because we shared those values and those experiences, we had a sort of common professional and personal bond between us.

IT: [00:12:01] You know Jamal walked a fine line for years in Saudi, where on the one hand he would, in a somewhat gentle way, talk about press freedom and giving Saudis more liberties. And on the other, he worked from within the royal court as an official advisor to Saudi leaders. Tell me a bit about that.

RK: [00:12:20] It's interesting to acknowledge and recognize that you can only try to work within these systems if you got along with them. If they trusted you, if they knew you. And if they knew you and trusted you then you would be given positions of authority like he was to write a column, to be an editor of a newspaper, to start a television network. And this is something that we see all over the region. People allow you to do sensitive work, in return you follow the rules, you are aware of the red lines. So he's not trying to cross the red lines, but he is trying to push those lines out further so that there was more space within the red lines to do good journalism.

IT: [00:13:08] Did he pose a real threat to Saudi Arabia given the nature of what he'd been writing over the last 12 months or so?

RK: [00:13:15] I don't think he was a threat, but I think the leadership saw him as a threat because he knew how the system worked from within and they were afraid he might start talking about what's really going on in Saudi Arabia, how they govern, how they use power.

RK: [00:13:32] And also he started to set up a nongovernmental civil society organization to promote democracy and press freedoms around the Middle East, the Arab world, and Saudi Arabia. And I think what happened is that he was transformed in his last year of life from a lone Saudi journalist calling for reform, which they could handle, they didn't- that wasn't scary to the regime. But then he became a kind of activist. He was trying to mobilize and sensitize and organize people in many ways. And I think that probably scared them.

IT: [00:14:13] Tell us a little bit about Mohammed bin Salman or MBS as he's known.

RK: [00:14:19] We don't know very much about him because he's always led a very quiet private life. He was suddenly named deputy crown prince about three four years ago when his father became king. And then he was able to become the crown prince and then he amassed all state power, not just state power but societal power. He amassed all power in his hands. So this is an unusual situation, which again completely turns on its head decades and decades of Saudi traditions and how the country is ruled. How decisions are made within the royal family. Mohammed bin Salman has become the first Arab monarch who is acting like the Arab autocratic Republican leaders used to act. Like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gathafi.

IT: [00:15:17] Mohammed bin Salman is also young. He's 33 years old and you know as we've been saying he's the de facto ruler of a country while very wealthy, has also a very young population. And from what we know he's extraordinarily popular with young Saudis. Explain that to me.

RK: [00:15:38] I absolutely do believe that many many young Saudis like what he has done. He's opened up social space for them. He's made life a little bit more fun for them. Certainly women can drive which is something they value. So definitely many young Saudis, maybe a big or small majority I don't know, like what he's doing. There's no doubt about that. But we don't have any way to verify that.

IT: [00:16:03] There's been a lot of talk since this Khashoggi affair began that this could possibly be the end for MBS. That there may be some rumblings inside the kingdom that he may not be suited to be the crown prince and indeed the next king of Saudi Arabia. Do you see any value or merit to that? That, that belief?

RK: [00:16:28] That kind of certainty is not there yet. We don't know that. Therefore he can say all these things he has been saying and it doesn't seem like he's in any danger within Saudi Arabia for- in terms of public opinion or the political and power establishment asking him to either be relieved of his powers or to share his powers with other people. For the moment he seems very secure. His father, the king, seems to trust him. The king asked him to oversee the restructuring of the intelligence agencies and security agencies. But if, if the evidence comes out that he was directly involved in this, my guess is that he would not last for a very long time. He would be quietly retired.

IT: [00:17:14] Rami one of the interesting things that this whole affair has put into sharp context is this relationship between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Tell us a little bit about that relationship.

RK: [00:17:26] Well I think there's two things that I would say about the Saudi Turkish relationship. The first is that this is a relationship that has a lot of tension in it because both of them see themselves as playing dominant roles around the Middle East and even further afield among Sunni Muslims all over the world. And the other thing I would say about their relationship is that the Turks are masters of statecraft and the Saudis are amateurs of statecraft. The Saudis don't know how to use power outside their country very well because they haven't done it very much. They work quietly based on compromise and they use their money to reach agreement, reach consensus. So they're just not used to taking their power and going out into the world and using it in a rough way as they're doing now.

RK: [00:18:23] The Turks are masters at statecraft. They know how to deal with other powers. They're a very strong self-confident country. We've seen them evolve in the last 30 years in a very dramatic way and they're now evolving in other ways that are maybe less impressive as the president tries to take on too much power. So there is many contrasts between these two countries but they're also competing in many ways for a dominant position in the region. But I think the Turks are much better at this than the Saudis.

IT: [00:18:59] Lastly Rami, you of course have given a lot of interviews about this. What's something about this, this whole thing you want to talk about or you haven't been asked about that that you'd like to share with us? A final thought if you will.

RK: [00:19:16] I would say that the most important thing to me about this situation of the Khashoggi killing, beyond getting to the bottom of who killed him and why they killed him and holding them accountable, the most important thing is for us to keep in mind that this is just the tip of the iceberg. That there are thousands and thousands of Arab journalists all over the region who are not able to practice their trade and who are under deep, strict constraints and controls by by governments.

RK: [00:19:47] And it's not just media that's at stake here. It's, it's all freedom of expression. And the worse than that is that not only do governments prevent us from expressing ourselves, but many governments are trying to control what we think in our own minds and how we talk to our children at home and how we talk privately around the dinner table. The thought control mechanisms of the modern Arab autocratic systems are really very frightening. How can we change the system? And this is what Jamal tried to do in his life and he paid a price for it by being killed. How can international concerned parties, Arabs who are interested to do this, how can we all work together to bring about those reforms even in a gradual manner? To bring about those reforms so people can think freely and express themselves openly and in a constructive way so that they can fix the problems in their societies rather than just ending up being like sheep or cattle or robots, which is what our governments are trying to make of us.

IT: [00:21:01] Rami Khouri, thank you very much.

RK: [00:21:03] Thanks for having me.

IT: [00:21:11] This point about freedom of expression in the Middle East, it came up a lot as we made this episode. Here's what news director Salah Negm had to say.

SN: [00:21:20] One thing that we will never forget, and we should keep alive, is the value of journalists and protecting journalists, regardless. Against political parties, governments, activists or whatever. Freedom of expression, protecting journalists to do their job. We are going to keep on that and keep that concept alive. And Jamal Khashoggi will be one of the symbols of what happens if we don't remember that journalism and freedom of expression and freedom of press are actually pillars of the modern society. And we shouldn't forget them or abandon them.

IT: [00:22:04] And we're giving the last word on this to one of the many journalists who didn't make it. Jamal Khashoggi.

JK: [00:22:13] I'm not asking for democracy. I'm asking for people to be allowed to speak. This is- I'm asking for the minimum.

IT: [00:22:23] Jamal Khashoggi once said a true crisis would have to happen in Saudi Arabia in order for the U.S. to apply pressure on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. On Tuesday, October 30th, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo started doing exactly that. Calling for an end to the Saudi led war in Yemen, a war that the UN says caused the world's largest humanitarian crisis. A war that the United States has so far supported.

IT: [00:23:05] That's it from us at The Take. Here in the U.S., it's been a really intense news week leading up to the midterm elections and we're going to bring you an episode on the election results from our DC office next week. Jasmin Bauomy and Morgan Waters produced this episode. They had production help from Kyana Moghadam, Jordan Marie Bailey, and me Imtiaz Tyab. The sound designer was Ian Coss, Graelyn Brashear is the show's lead producer. Special thanks to Linus Bergman, Salah Negm and Rami Khouri. Thanks for listening.