Websites that support the Iranian regime, state media in Turkey, and voices from authoritarian regimes and human rights abusers sought to cynically exploit the anniversary of the murder of former Saudi insider Jamal Khashoggi. Since last year, the genuine grief over the death of Khashoggi has been hijacked in some countries and media to use it for ulterior motives, talking about press freedom while journalists are jailed, expelled and harassed.
"Even as Turkish leaders call for an international inquiry into Saudi Arabian journalist Khashoggi's murder, the Committee to Protect Journalists found the Turkish government to be the world's biggest jailer of journalists for the third consecutive year," ABC news noted last year.
Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders were on hand in Istanbul this year to commemorate the murder of Khashoggi. Amnesty published a special call to honor his legacy.
Genuine grief over the death of Khashoggi has been widely exploited for ulterior motives.
While Amnesty was commemorating Khashoggi, the human rights organization also pointed out the long list of abuses of freedom in Turkey. Yet Ankara's state media outlets have sought to highlight Khashoggi's death as an example of press freedom.
A scientist was sentenced to 15 months in prison just days before the Khashoggi commemoration for the apparent crime of publishing environmental findings. Amnesty has called for charges to be dropped against the academic, whom it describes as a whistle-blower.
Amnesty noted in August that Turkey carries out mass blocking of websites, a "full-frontal attack on freedom of expression." According to the human rights organization, the Reporters Without Borders representative that attended the Khashoggi event was himself detained in 2016 "after symbolically guest editing a publication for a day as part of a solidarity campaign."
Amnesty also called for "outlandish" charges to be dropped against civil society activist Osman Kavala, and said in February that Turkish courts were being used to "strangle media freedom." This is on top of the organization's reminder in May that Ankara is still the largest jailer of journalists, even as Turkey's pro-government media talk about "press freedom" and Khashoggi.
Amnesty's own Turkey director has also been on trial. Ankara has accused these human rights activists of "terrorism," according to an article in The Guardian. Turkey expelled three German journalists in March. They were unable to cover the events in Turkey talking about "press freedom" this week.
In Iran, where recent reports said foreign academics had been arrested and charged with erroneous charges, an article by Press TV was devoted to describing how the "Saudi Arabia government agents savagely murdered dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi." Press TV calls it "heinous."
This is the same Iran that expelled an AFP journalist in May 2018, expelled a Guardian journalist in 2008, expelled a Spanish journalist in 2010, expelled another AFP journalist in 2011, shuttered a BBC bureau in 2009, put another journalist in prison for 544 days, ordered journalists jailed and flogged in August 2018, and has gone after academics and others, denying basic freedom of expression to people.
Qatar's Al Jazeera has several articles on Khashoggi, highlighting the human rights activists who care about his legacy and quotes condemnations of the "toxic shadow" of powerful states, such as Saudi Arabia, which Al Jazeera says act with "impunity." Al Jazeera also marked the anniversary by running an op-ed asking Riyadh to free activists, and arguing that Khashoggi paid a price for wanting a "different" Saudi Arabia.
Qatar, which hosts media critical of Saudi Arabia, has no criticism of its own human rights record or monarchy at home. Al Jazeera, for instance, has no articles critical of Qatar. Yet foreign reports indicate that human rights activists have been detained in Qatar, for instance two British human rights activists were reported "disappeared" in Qatar in 2014 by The Guardian. They eventually were released and made it back to the UK.
In 2012 a poet was jailed for "insulting the emir" of Qatar. Amnesty International reported that a blogger and human rights activist was detained in 2011. Last year, Amnesty International reported that two members of the Federation of Nepali Journalists at a press freedom event were deported, and a lawyer representing a poet was banned from traveling. Amnesty has said that "freedom of expression remain strictly controlled" in Qatar – the same Qatar that has media that encourages freedom of expression abroad.
Taken together, the abuse of Khashoggi's memory in some countries appears more political than it does about the values that op-eds and commentary claim to support. Countries where freedom of expression is among the most harshly curtailed have articles talking about freedom of expression. These countries tend to have state media that is officially hostile to Saudi Arabia, and Khashoggi's death is more about leveraging it against Riyadh than learning from it since some of these countries engage in extrajudicial killings of their own. It is likely that if some of these countries have warmer relations with Riyadh, their coverage of the murder of Khashoggi will fade.
Seth Frantzman, a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.