The story of Jamal Khashoggi has circulated the news cycle for weeks — the Virginia resident and Washington Post contributor walked into a consulate for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey Oct. 2 and was gruesomely dismembered by Saudi operatives.
The Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture at VCU condemned the killing Oct. 19. The school also backed a letter sent from the Society of Professional Journalists to the U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Saudi Arabia, “urging a full investigation” of the situation.
Jeff South, associate professor of journalism at VCU, said the Khashoggi situation “underscores the fact that journalism is under attack throughout the world.”
“If what everyone alleges has indeed happened, it shows how brutal some governments are in pursuing their critics, including journalists,” South said.
The increase in threats and attacks on journalists in the U.S. — such as the Capital Gazette shooting in June — dropped the country two places in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index to No. 45 of 180 countries. The most recent instance with mail bomber Cesar Sayoc, who sent bombs to CNN’s New York and Atlanta headquarters, happened after the index was released.
Khashoggi’s criticism against Saudi Arabia and others close to the regime prompted multiple attempts to suppress his voice. According to The Independent, Khashoggi was banned by Saudi authorities in December 2016 from TV appearances or publications “for criticizing U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.”
According to The New York Times, before his death, Khashoggi and other critics of the Saudi regime were “victims of a cyberbullying campaign” by Saudi “Twitter trolls.”
Despite the treatment of Khashoggi by the Saudi regime, VCU doctoral student and Saudi journalist Wedyan Kattan said the western media’s perception of journalism in Saudi Arabia is often times “negatively exaggerated.”
“It doesn’t seem as you think here — it’s not the hell,” Kattan said. “Any journalist can have that amount of risk.”
Salman has been praised by many as a “progressive figure” in Saudi Arabia — last year, he struck down a law prohibiting women from driving.
Just 10 years ago, men and women in the journalism field were separated, Kattan said, but now with Salman as the crown prince, she said he is “doing things previous rulers could not do.”
Christopher Saladino, a political science professor at VCU, said the Saudi monarch “wears two masks.”
“There’s incentive to reform that are for the good of the state, for the good of the regime and for the good of the people,” Saladino said. “On the other hand, my reading of it is that there’s significant evidence that he is reforming on mostly low-hanging fruit — easy stuff, stuff that’s not going to ruffle the feathers too terribly much.”
Continuous changes by the Saudi government in the story of Khashoggi’s death — going from suggesting to Bloomberg he left the consulate after “a few minutes or one hour,” to a recent statement that his death was “premeditated” — have pointed to Salman’s attitude toward dissenters.
Due to extensive U.S.-Saudi relations, experts are skeptical if sanctions will be forced on Saudi Arabia if the investigation finds the regime responsible for Khashoggi’s death.
Kattan said she believes Saudi statements saying Salman did not know about Khashoggi’s murder and that the operatives allegedly responsible for Khashoggi’s death acted without the regime’s orders.
Others, like Saladino, said it is hard to believe the Saudi government’s claims.
“Formally, [Saudi Arabia’s recent statement] is so extremely fluid that it would be foolish I think to assume that what we heard today was a bottom line of truth because it’s a fairly weak statement,” Saladino said.
The Robertson School said it supports its students and current journalists in their attempts to “hold people in power accountable and shine light on information that the public needs to know.”
“We are appalled by today’s climate of hostility toward journalists around the world,” the Robertson School statement read. “As we prepare our students to enter the journalism profession — to report news accurately and fairly and to engage readers and viewers in discussing issues important to them — we stand united beside our students as well as current journalists.”