THE DISAPPEARANCEof Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last Tuesday has drawn the attention of the media world. His reported murder at the hands of Saudi government agents at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul threatens to spark an international incident. For those who knew him, the uncertainty surrounding his fate is excruciating and his situation serves as a devastating reminder about the perils of speaking out in the face of oppression.
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Khashoggi, 59, left Saudi Arabia in June of 2017, going into self-imposed exile after fearing for his freedom amid crackdowns by the Saudi government. He has contributed to The Washington Postfor the past year, and his editor there, Karen Attiah, told CNN’s Brian Stelter that Khashoggi just wanted to write. She says that it’s important for people who knew him “to speak out about who he is, what his work meant to Saudi Arabia and to the region as a whole, what it meant to us. And I think it’s really important to know that Khashoggi, Jamal, he didn’t want to be known as a dissident. He didn’t want to be this opposition figure.”
Jamal Khashoggi’s disappearance and suspected death is a grave assault on the freedom of expression worldwide.
In writing about repression in his home country, however, Khashoggi became one of the most prominent Saudi voices on the international stage. His work for the Post highlighted the downsides of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s agenda, and gave lie to the overly credulous reporting on MBS’s image as a reformer. “We never had freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia, it’s true. But also we were never been ordered or told to impose certain ideas, and if you do not say those ideas you will be judged,” Khashoggi told my colleague Jon Allsop earlier this year.
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On Saturday, the Post reported that Turkish investigators believe Khashoggi was killed in “a preplanned murder.” “If the reports of Jamal’s murder are true, it is a monstrous and unfathomable act,” Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor for the Post, said in a statement. Saudi Arabia has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance, insisting that he left the consulate shortly after he arrived, but no evidence has been provided to back up this claim. The incident takes place against the backdrop of an international PR campaign by Salman to cast himself as a reformer, and has the potential to complicate US-Saudi relations at a time when President Trump has closely aligned himself with the crown prince.
Khashoggi saw the danger of crackdowns early, writing in his first column for the Post, “I have left my home, my family and my job, and I am raising my voice. To do otherwise would betray those who languish in prison,” Khashoggi wrote in September 2017. “I can speak when so many cannot. I want you to know that Saudi Arabia has not always been as it is now. We Saudis deserve better.”