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How Middle Eastern media view Khashoggi's murder

October 22, 2018

Media outlets in the Middle East are getting clear instructions on the right way to cover the Jamal Khashoggi case. Qatari and Saudi media, in particular, disagree in a region where press freedom is largely unknown.

Protesters in Washington holding pictures of Khashoggi
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Martin

Their faces solemn, they peer into the camera, the father more restrained than the son, both clad in black against a black background.

"The custodian of the two holy mosques and the crown prince express condolences to the family of Jamal Khashoggi," reads the headline of the article in the Saudi Al Riyadh daily. The king and the crown prince spoke to the deceased man's son on the phone, and he had thanked them "sincerely" for the condolences, according to the paper.

The media are forging ahead at full speed in their attempts to limit the political damage caused by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The head of the state's condolences to the victim's family are a key part of the national campaign and are flanked by numerous op-eds, all of which are defensive in nature.

Screenshot from alriyadh.com showing the king and crown price
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his father King Salman moved the eye of suspicion elsewhere — at least in Saudi mediaImage: alriyadh.com

According to Al Riyadh, the security services made a mistake, a mistake no one wants to excuse or justify. The paper pointed out that the country's "wise leadership has shown sufficient courage and desire for transparency by announcing the details of the event even before the Turkish authorities make their official statement." The case will be brought before a Saudi court, the paper wrote, adding that the accused will be dealt with in accordance with the law.

Saudi Arabia and its 'foes'

The Saudi daily is convinced these steps will put an end to the agitated media response. It was clear from the start that the "many enemies" of the kingdom would see the Khashoggi case as a "gift from heaven."

"They will not stop screaming and moaning as long as someone listens," the paper wrote of those criticizing the Saudi response to Khashoggi's death.

Read more: Saudi Arabia: Powerful, but not omnipotent after Khashoggi affair

"That's how they move [Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman from the media's attention: They present people who are allegedly to blame while Mohammed bin Salman, by expressing condolences, gives the impression of having nothing to do with the case," Meyer told DW.

Accusations from Qatar

The situation is completely different on the other side of the Saudi border in Qatar. Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper raised severe accusations against the Saudi crown prince. By confessing that Khashoggi died in the consulate, Saudi Arabia is trying to save face.

"But the government is failing completely because it cannot hide the fact that Crown Prince Salman and his entourage have decided to silence every dissenting voice, be it through kidnapping, arrest, dismemberment or murder," the paper wrote.

Read more: Could the Khashoggi case spell the end for Saudi Crown Prince bin Salman?

The paper also implicated US President Donald Trump and his son-in-law adviser Jared Kushner for having roles Khashoggi's death. Both, the paper said, prided themselves at having installed "their" man in Riyadh.

"Now a group of young men under Prince Salman rules Saudi Arabia, doing everything they can to silence their opponents," Al-Araby Al-Jadeed wrote.

Al Jazeera Newsroom
Al Jazeera has again come out staunchly opposed to Saudi ArabiaImage: Al Jazeera Media Network

A clear stand from Al Jazeera

Qatari-financed media, particularly the popular TV broadcaster Al Jazeera, have taken a clear stand, said Meyer.

"The incident is at the top of every news broadcast, with a focus on criticism from the West, in particular the debate in the United States," he added.

While Trump has been reserved, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives are putting pressure on the president, Meyer said, adding that the Qatari media keep on reporting these US developments as well as Turkish reactions.

No press freedom in the Arab World

The position either of the media takes proves that freedom of the press no longer exists in large parts of the Arab world, according to Meyer. The media have but one task, Meyer added, to "cheer and to justify the actions of the respective ruling house."

Those who dare to criticize authoritarian rulers find themselves rotting in jail — unless they were fast enough to flee the country, Meyer said.

In the Khashoggi case, the main issue remains Salman's guilt or innocence and the media camps are separated by an ironclad border. Those who accuse the ruler of complicity come from countries that have a tense relationship with Saudi Arabia. Those who come to the crown prince's defense are from countries whose governments have good relations with Riyadh.

Accusations of insincerity

"Al Jazeera is not sincere in its reporting because it does not reveal its political motives and [Saudi-owned TV channel] Al Arabiya obscures the truth from its viewers," Hafez al-Mirazi told DW. The media expert has worked for both the Qatar-based broadcaster and its Saudi-based competitor.

Nashat al-Akkash of Birzeit University in Ramallah also argues that Al Jazeera has been reporting on the Khashoggi case because the broadcaster has "political bills" to settle with Saudi Arabia. But that, he added, has not marred the channel's objectivity. The Qatari broadcaster's reporting is more reliable than that of its competitors from Saudi Arabia, al-Akkash told DW.

Both the Saudi and the Qatari newspapers follow their respective government's course, Günter Meyer said. Even if the papers are based in London, that doesn't influence their political position, he says and adds that the key question is that of funding.

"Even in London, these daily newspapers follow orders from Riyadh or Doha," Meyer said.

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Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East