It is yet to be determined whatever happened to Jamal Khashoggi. The prevailing theory – one which has plenty of merits – is the House of Saud critic was killed by Saudi agents inside their embassy in Turkey earlier this month. Khashoggi’s disappearance is putting plenty of pressure on Saudi Arabia with multiple business leaders doing their own #walkaway movement in connection with an upcoming business summit in the kingdom. The U.S. is still planning to send Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to the event, but it’s always possible President Donald Trump will change his mind.
Saudi Arabia has never been considered one of the bastions of freedom (economic or personal) in the world – regardless of Khashoggi’s fate. It consistently ranks near the bottom of freedom indices whether it be Cato’s Human Freedom Index, Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, or Reporters without Border’s report on press freedom. There is some reform in the country, but the benefits may never be seen in any of our lifetimes.
Yet, there are those who believe Trump is to blame for Khashoggi’s disappearance. Huffington Post’s Senior White House Correspondent S.V. Date put the onus directly on the President suggesting the Saudis took Trump’s “enemy of the people” comment directly to the heart.
[O]n Wednesday, asked specifically whether his use of the phrase “enemy of the people” ― made famous by dictators from Adolf Hitler to Joseph Stalin to Mao Zedong ― to disparage journalists may have contributed to Khashoggi’s disappearance, Trump did not answer. Instead, he walked to his waiting limousine for a ride to a political rally…
Other foreign policy observers said Trump’s words have clearly had an effect on the treatment of journalists abroad, very likely including Khashoggi.
“It’s not only possible. It’s a certainty,” said former CIA analyst and National Security Council spokesman Ned Price, whose group National Security Action has put together examples of authoritarian leaders mimicking Trump’s phrasing.
Syria’s Bashar Assad, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Hungary’s Viktor Orban have all used the phrase “fake news” ― a Trump favorite ― to attack negative coverage since the start of Trump’s presidency. Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose spy agencies boosted Trump during the 2016 presidential election by disseminating actual propaganda on social media, has blamed both “fake news” and the “deep state” ― another Trump favorite ― for his difficulties in achieving a closer relationship with Trump.
A reminder to Date: Assad, Duterte, Maduro, and Orban have been in power longer than Trump. Their human rights and press freedom rankings are low – and have been low for quite some time. Autocrats and dictators have long despised media outlets willing to criticize their policy positions. It’s completely disingenuous to suggest Trump’s calls of “fake news” are enabling other countries to start doing more crackdowns on reporters and news organizations. His “enemy of the people” comments don’t help (and he should stop using the term), but there’s no evidence suggesting the Khashoggi situation is his fault. Obviously, this changes if evidence comes to light suggesting the Trump Administration helped the Saudis on Khashoggi (Daily Mail reported in April Jared Kushner gave Crown Prince Salman evidence on enemies before, which the admin has denied) but anything else is just speculation.
People here know I’ve constantly hammered Trump for his criticism of the press – regardless if he used the term “fake news media” or not. Trump’s attacks are dangerous because they set a precedent for later presidents – who may even be more anti-free press than he is. It’s not like previous administration have ever targeted reporters for doing their jobs (note sarcasm). Wasn’t there a certain Democratic U.S. Senator from California who once sought to define a journalist as, “working as a salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information.” No one’s blaming Dianne Feinstein’s obviously anti-free press comments as enabling autocrats and dictators now, are they?
Whoever made Khashoggi disappear deserves plenty of scorn – although I’m not sure government sanctions are the right way to go about it (I would be perfectly happy with that arms deal being completely scuttled and the U.S. government getting out of the business of selling arms to other countries, to begin with). Private businesses deciding to not take part in certain functions may be the best way to go about it to show Saudi Arabia their anti-freedom policies won’t be tolerated.
It’s just a little extreme to suggest Trump’s attacks on the press are a major factor in the Khashoggi affair.