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Khashoggi’s Murder and the Western Exceptionalist Media

News of the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul has crashed international headlines in the last month, reigniting a worldwide debate on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the obligation of states to protect their journalists, and the treatment of political dissidents by dictatorial regimes. In the United States, liberal media outlets have capitalized on this incident to denounce the Trump administration’s unwillingness to withdraw from the US’s billion-dollar arms deals with Saudi Arabia. This deal,  in their opinion, implicates the US in Saudi Arabia’s crimes. This has provoked a nationwide discourse on America’s broader unilateralist foreign policy towards the Middle East that the American left views as self-interest driven, rather than humanitarian. Ironically, it is the western media’s outrage over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder that reflects western exceptionalism, not Trump’s unsavory camaraderie with Saudi Arabian crown prince and notorious human rights abuser, Mohammed Bin Salman- (MBS).

America’s disreputable relationship with Saudi Arabia is anything but new. Grounded in the history of the American-Saudi joint foundation of the ARAMCO (formerly the Arab American Oil Company, now the Saudi Arabian Oil Company and the national petroleum and natural gas company of Saudi Arabia) and a mutual dislike for Iran, the bilateral alliance between these two states has gone from strength to strength in the last 70 years, overcoming seemingly insurmountable stumbling blocks like 9/11, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens. 11% of US oil imports come from Saudi Arabia, making the country the second largest supplier of crude oil to the United States, behind only Canada. When juxtaposed with this mind-boggling figure, Donald Trump’s claim that damaging relations with Saudi Arabia over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder would prove disastrous for the US economy does not appear to be an overstatement.

Yet, this has been true for many years, as has Saudi Arabia’s decades old policy of criminalizing political dissidence. In 2017 alone, Freedom House reports that Saudi Arabia detained several prominent journalists like Nadhir al-Majid and Sami al-Thubaiti, who were critical of the Kingdom’s human rights abuses. The Gulf Crisis of 2016, a regional diplomatic spar centered around Qatar, was likely orchestrated by Saudi Arabia to silence Al Jazeera, the Qatar based news agency that often denounces Saudi policies. Mohammed Bin Salman’s sweeping power grab in 2017 that involved the arrest of some 200 rival members of the royal family on charges of corruption offers further proof that leaders of Saudi Arabia, even the ostensibly progressive ones, do not shy away from squashing dissent. It is even believed that the crown prince arranged for an estrangement between his parents so that the power transition worked out smoothly in his favor. Saudi Arabia still sanctions constitutional beheadings and corporal punishments, and tortures human rights activists on a routine basis. That Mohammed Bin Salman and his yes-men would murder a dissident journalist who supported a rival political movement and knew slanderous state secrets is scarcely a surprise. That the US government, which has steadfastly stood by its ally through all of its past crimes, is refusing to recede from a billion-dollar trade deal over the death of a journalist — a fairly common occurrence in Saudi Arabia — is also unsurprising. The western world’s expectation of a different, more humanistic reality is what is unrealistic.

It is no coincidence that the western media’s preoccupation with this incident also aligns with the death of a journalist who ran in close circles with other members of the liberal western media. The west perceived Khashoggi as a beacon of free speech, who was chased out of Saudi Arabia by a conservative monarchical regime. If this was truly about upholding the freedom of journalists, the American media would have been equally concerned about journalists and activists facing repression in Turkey, whose civic statuses are not incomparable to their counterparts in Saudi Arabia. Since the failed coup attempt against President Erdogan in July 2016, the Turkish media has faced unprecedented repression. In the last year, Turkey shut down 180 media outlets, leading to the unemployment of more than 2,500 journalists and other employees in the media sector. Many prominent journalists like Ahmet Altan, the editor-in-chief of Taraf, a Turkish liberal daily that published pieces disparaging Erdogan’s policies, have been sentenced to prison for life. The Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ) reports that more than 25 journalists have been murdered in Turkey since 1992, 16 of whom have been murdered with impunity, far higher than corresponding figures in Saudi Arabia. Similar reports of repression come out of states like India, where prominent journalists holding views different from the mainstream often receive death threats and are suspiciously killed in accidents that follow those threats, resemblant of the Khashoggi murder. The most notable of these was the suspicious death of Shujaat Bukhari, the editor of Rising Kashmir, who was critical of the Indian government’s role in suppressing the self-determination movement in the north Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Nevertheless, the western media doesn’t swoop into such affairs concerning India, Turkey, or other low-ranking states in the World Press Freedom Index, raising questions about exceptionalism in western media.

Take, for instance, the gruesome beheadings of the American and British journalists and aid workers in ISIS occupied Syria in 2014. These nauseating videos of American and European men dressed in orange jumpsuits, kneeling before a vast horizonless desert at the mercy of an English speaking ISIS recruit wielding a butcher’s knife, became the subject of fanatical obsession in the west. The killings of Syrian and Iraqi journalists that were taking place at the same time, which ISIS did not film, never received attention in the media. As Jon Henley writes in his piece for the Guardian, this was because “they were neither American nor European, nor the subjects of a sick ISIS promo video…” The fact that the US launched airstrikes in Syria only after American blood had been shed, and then pitched the intervention as a humanitarian effort to wipe out terrorism by ISIS also went unchallenged by the US media. But the death of a single Washington Post journalist somehow merits a renewed discussion on the American double standard in the Middle East. This by itself is a double standard, and the western exceptionalist media is creating it.

Exceptionalism in western media coverage isn’t limited to journalists. During the first few weeks of the ongoing Great March of Return, a series of protests and gatherings were organised by Palestinian resistors in Gaza to mourn 70 years since the Nakba of 1948, and to commemorate the stifled efforts for self-determination that followed. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) used excessive violence to clamp down on these protests, using weapons and tactics that only highlighted the power asymmetry at play in this conflict. Of the many slain civilians and humanitarian aid workers was a 21 year old paramedic by the name of Razzan al-Najjar who was shot dead by an Israeli sniper while she was volunteering near the town of Khan al Yunis. After receiving widespread condemnation for killing a humanitarian aid worker, the Israeli government produced a doctored video in which Najjar calls herself “a human shield” of Hamas. The cover-up jobs were shabbily done and therefore evoked an unanticipated global response. However, unlike Khashoggi’s case, which received widespread attention and was subject to western media’s outrage over America’s complicity, Najjar’s death is almost unheard of in the western world. The media didn’t condemn the US veto of the UN Security Council resolution that would allow for an investigation into the crimes committed by the IDF during this conflict. Neither did Najar’s murder by the IDF spike popular interest in America’s robust military alliance with Israel, like Khashoggi’s murder did for Saudi-US relations. Yet, much like American arms used by Saudi Arabia to kill Yemeni children, Israel and the IDF uses American taxpayer money to occupy, oppress, and even obliterate Palestinian lives in the West Bank and Gaza.

What makes Jamal Khashoggi’s case exceptional? There seems to be only one answer: Khashoggi was a part of the ‘west’, a member of the liberal western media that produces and perpetuates a double standard used to critique American foreign policy. This is the same media that mourns the European and American lives, lost in terror attacks in European capitals like Paris and Brussels, but is silent on attacks that take place in the ”non-west.” In 2015, Facebook feeds lit up with profile picture updates that were inspired by the tricolor of the French flag — a gesture of solidarity and sympathy for the people of France, shaken by devastating coordinated attacks by ISIS across Paris. ISIS also carried out massive suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon, and Iraq on the same day that killed around 84 people. Yet, the western media looked away, almost insinuating that non-western lives (and deaths) were less important  than American and European ones. The western media’s coverage of Khashoggi’s death is an extension of the same principle. That an issue can headline a globally-read newspaper only when the lives of Americans, Europeans, and their supporters have been lost, is exclusionary and supremacist.

The death of a single western journalist has evoked an unparalleled reaction from the American public, regarding the dubious US-Saudi economic relationship, that does not compare with the blanket silence of the western world on the deaths of hundreds of other “non-western” journalists, activists, and dissidents that have been killed by Saudi Arabia and other allies of the US. If a journalist does not belong in this umbrella of the “west,” it is hard to imagine that the news in the west would cover their state-sponsored assassination, let alone provoke criticism of the west’s relationship with the state that assassinated him. What is more ironic than the western media’s Khashoggi-centrism, that chooses Khashoggi’s death instead of the countless other instances of western hypocrisy on humanitarianism, is to call out the self-serving nature of the US-Saudi alliance. The media coverage of Khashoggi’s death and the lack of media coverage of wars, famine, occupations, assassinations, detentions, and arrests in places that do not concern the American public is reflective of the innate bias in western media. This is nothing short of western exceptionalism — only when an issue fits certain checkboxes, especially those built around American and European popular interest, does it warrant media scrutiny.

While Jamal Khashoggi’s death is undoubtedly a condemnable crime, western media needs to de-exceptionalize its coverage of the matter if it truly desires to uphold its journalistic ideals. Khashoggi’s murder isn’t the first instance of state-sponsored violence against journalists. The endurance of the US-Saudi alliance through the unfolding of this heinous crime isn’t the first manifestation of US unilateralism in the Middle East and the general lack of humanitarianism in foreign policy making. This is not the first time that a political dissident is assassinated by a totalitarian regime. This is not the first time that the US government has overlooked a state’s crimes to hold onto a profitable bilateral relationship. But de-exceptionalising Khashoggi’s death could be the media’s first step towards pardoning itself of its past ignorance.

Photo: “004 Plaka – Newspapers”

About the Author

Anchita Dasgupta '21 is a Staff Writer for the World Section of the Brown Political Review. Anchita can be reached at anchita_dasgupta@brown.edu

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