Journalist Jamal Khashoggi should be hailed a hero for paying the ultimate price for his belief in free speech. Instead, his murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last year serves as a cautionary tale: no matter how brutal the crime, no matter how well-known the victim might be, no matter how incriminating the evidence, justice proves elusive for those who speak truth to power.
Last year was one of the most dangerous for the media. The number of reporters who were murdered and disappeared in 2018 went up on the previous year, and «journalists have never before been subjected to as much violence and abusive treatment as in 2018,» according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
This worrying trend, which has continued into this year, doesn’t tell the full story. A lack of justice in the Khashoggi case means that tyrannical leaders can press on with their abuse of human rights and ramp up their attacks on critics, as well as the free press.
A year after Khashoggi’s gruesome murder, many questions remain unanswered. But the known details have left the world in shock and outrage. We know why Saudi Arabian authorities wanted Khashoggi silenced. We know that he lived in fear, that he dreaded facing the same fate as so many other dissidents who were abducted while abroad and forcibly returned to the kingdom. We know 15 Saudi agents were dispatched to Istanbul to silence him for good. And we know the person overseeing the whole gruesome affair was then a close aide to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saud al-Qahtani, who was a key player in the young prince’s bid to crush criticism of his leadership.
What we don’t know is if the perpetrators will be held accountable for Khashoggi’s killing. The Saudis say there is a trial underway, begrudgingly succumbing to international pressure, but they have nevertheless have kept the proceedings under a shroud of secrecy (and Qahtani is not among those on trial). The Crown Prince recently told CBS that he takes responsibility «as a leader» in his country, and yet in the next breath he distanced himself from the incident, saying it took place without his knowledge.
The Crown Prince insisted he knew nothing about the operation, saying it’s impossible for «3 million people working for the Saudi government» to send daily reports to the leader «or the second highest person in the Saudi government.»
The message is clear: if Saudi Arabia can get away with the murder of someone like Khashoggi, they can get away with anything, and so too may other repressive regimes. As a well-known journalist, Khashoggi had many friends, colleagues and editors to speak for him. He was a US resident and a columnist at the Washington Post. The brazenness of the crime gave the case special attention, as did the fact it took place in a third country.
But when the CIA revealed intelligence showing a link between bin Salman and Khashoggi’s murder, US President Donald Trump largely brushed it aside. When UN Special Rapporteur Agnes Callamard issued her own report, saying the murder was likely a premeditated execution, it received even less official attention. Attempts by the US Congress to hold the Crown Prince and the Saudi leadership accountable — by banning arms sales to the kingdom, for instance — have been blocked by the White House.
Khashoggi’s killing was not an isolated case. It was one in a long series of assaults on critics of the Saudi monarchy. Even as the Crown Prince was being feted as a «modernizer» and a «reformer,» he was throwing rivals, journalists, bloggers, artists, women’s rights activists and others whose views he could not tolerate behind bars. International criticism toward this wave of repression has not come fast enough. It is little wonder that the Saudi regime felt emboldened to take its darkest practices abroad to silence one of its most famous critics. With the failure to hold Khashoggi’s killers accountable so far, the repression has resumed just as quietly as it began.
In April, Saudi authorities imprisoned a number of individuals, including journalists, writers, and academics. They included two US citizens — a fact that aroused not even the faintest whisper of protest from the Trump administration.
Several brave human rights defenders who had challenged the discriminatory male guardianship system remain behind bars, where they are allegedly subject to increasingly grim conditions, including torture. When women’s rights defender Loujain al-Hathloul’s family visited her in prison last December she showed them the dark marks across her thighs — the lasting traces of electric shocks, she said.
The fear of speaking out against Riyadh has spread to human rights defenders abroad in countries allied to Saudi Arabia. When Mohammed bin Salman traveled to Pakistan earlier this year, some journalists changed their social media profile photos to images of Khashoggi. It was both an act of solidarity and resistance, showing their support for their Saudi counterparts and drawing attention to the repression Pakistani journalists themselves face. The journalists were reportedly placed under investigation by Pakistani authorities.
Saudi Arabia’s impunity also sends a message to other countries — like the United Arab Emirates, where people have been reportedly detained for posting comments on social media, or Egypt, where hundreds of demonstrators have been arrested in recent weeks — that they can continue arresting journalists and other critics for peaceful protests or airing their criticisms online.
The space for freedom of expression and the free press is shrinking drastically in the region and beyond, and Jamal Khashoggi knew that too well. But with a lack of accountability for his murder, speaking truth to power may now become a risk too dangerous to take for those under authoritarian rule. What was meant to be a turning point for protecting journalists and dissidents has now become a warning sign.
Samah Hadid is a human rights advocate based in Beirut who has campaigned for justice and accountability for Jamal Khashoggi. She is the former Middle East director of campaigns for Amnesty International. The opinions viewed in this commentary are hers.