For much of the past 15 years, The Washington Post has repeatedly published reports that essentially amount to press releases for the Saudi government promoting Saudi government “reforms.”
ISTANBUL — The mysterious disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in the Turkish capital of Istanbul last Tuesday has jolted the worlds of Western media and international diplomacy. Friends and allies of Khashoggi, as well as the Turkish government, have alleged that the Saudi journalist and U.S. resident, who was living in “self-imposed exile” for his criticisms of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), was brutally murdered and dismembered in the building.
Turkish authorities have since requested that the Saudi government allow them to search the building for Khashoggi and for evidence of the alleged crime. The Saudi government has insisted that Khashoggi had disappeared after leaving its Istanbul consulate. Neither the Saudis nor the Turks have provided public evidence to support their claims.
Khashoggi was a Saudi dissident more notable in the West than his fellow dissidents, a recognition attributable to the fact that he was also a U.S. resident and a columnist for The Washington Post. The Post wrote on Monday:
If true, this is a horrific crime, the assassination of a journalist in his own country’s consulate on foreign soil — something without precedent in modern times.”
Prominent mainstream journalists from The New York Times, and the Post have since publicly called on the U.S. government to push for an investigation into the alleged murder and to help solve the mystery of Khashoggi’s troubling disappearance.
Some of those journalists, like Thomas Friedman of the Times, tried to underscore his argument that the U.S. government must get to the bottom to the matter by stating that the incident could threaten “reform” in Saudi Arabia. Indeed, as an article in the Times recently noted, if Khashoggi’s murder is confirmed, it could “unravel the campaign by the 33-year-old Saudi Arabian crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to cultivate an image in the West as a promising reformer and dependable ally.” Indeed, Khashoggi had announced that he could no longer live in Saudi Arabia after the MBS-led government had “ordered [him] to shut up.”
However, that “cultivated image” of Mohammed bin Salman as a “promising reformer” was largely promoted by the Post itself, as well as the Times, whose most prominent writers are now – perhaps ironically – beginning to realize the sordid consequences of doing PR for a mass-murderer like MBS.
Heaping praise on a dubious “reformer”
For much of the past 15 years, The Washington Post has repeatedly published reports that essentially amount to press releases for the Saudi government promoting Saudi government “reforms.” That is largely thanks to the columns of one reporter, David Ignatius, whose reports on the Gulf Kingdom range from the fawning to the apologetic. Many of Ignatius’ past reports ballyhooed reforms and changes, including an improved status for Saudi women, that never actually materialized or were “token, meaningless public-relations gestures” that never translated into long-lasting reforms.
Since MBS’ rise to power, the Post has continued to publish glowing reviews of MBS’ “new vision” for a “more modern” Saudi Arabia, such as an article last year titled “A young prince is reimagining Saudi Arabia. Can he make his vision come true?” In that piece, columnist Ignatius glowingly speaks of MBS’ “agenda of economic and social reform,” which is “moving ahead slowly but steadily.” Ignatius, much as he has done in the past, conflates economic reform with social reform in order to create the illusion that Saudi Arabia will become less autocratic and more egalitarian while the actual reforms are instead merely privatizing a portion of the Saudi economy.
As Adam Johnson noted in FAIR last year, Ignatius has never used the term “human rights,” despite having written about the Gulf Kingdom for 15 years. Johnson noted that:
In one of the few columns (1/5/16) in which Ignatius actually levels criticism of the Saudi rulers’ gross human-rights abuses, they are stripped of all autonomy, with the beheading of a minority religious figure painted as a response to the Evil Iranians: ‘The kingdom’s fear of a rising Iran led it to execute a dissident Shiite cleric.’”
Similarly, Ignatius’ only criticism of the Saudi-led war in Yemen is that it has been “costly and unsuccessful,” ignoring the fact that nearly 18 million Yemenis are starving to death or that the Saudis routinely bombs civilians, including children.
Following Khashoggi’s disappearance, though, Ignatius’ tone seems to have changed. Writing on Twitter on Saturday, Ignatius stated:
If my friend Jamal Khashoggi’s death is confirmed, it is a monstrous outrage. Those responsible will pay a severe price. We loved Jamal’s honesty; we won’t forgive those who tried to silence him.”
Ignatius isn’t the only mainstream journalist to have once sung MBS’ praises only to find themselves in an uncomfortable position following Khashoggi’s rumored death. Indeed, Thomas Friedman – who recently called on President Donald Trump to help investigate Khashoggi’s disappearance – wrote a piece for the Times last year praising MBS as having heralded Saudi Arabia’s “Arab Spring” and touting his “big plans” for his country.
Now Ignatius and Friedman may begin to think twice about doing PR for MBS’ rule, particularly if they know that the “young, charismatic prince” has no qualms about using his country’s foreign consulates to murder one of his own citizens and most prominent critics.