Over the last decade, stories about the potential for freedom of the press in the Arab world have alternated between hopeful and hopeless. The 2011 Arab uprisings were a turning point for activists, but regime clampdowns have left many Arab countries worse off in terms of press freedom. Arab countries continue to rank near the bottom of press freedom indices, with the notable exception of Tunisia, where the situation has improved considerably over the last few years according to a report from Reporters Without Borders.
News media in the Arab world have gained even more importance as the information war between Qatar and Saudi Arabia developed. The Saudi outlet Al Arabiya is trying to challenge the Qatari network Al Jazeera’s dominance in pan-Arab coverage, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has shown that he places major emphasis on controlling information aimed at both the Saudi people and the Arab public at large. The crown prince’s handling of the information about the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is a clear example of how far MbS is willing to go to control Saudi public discourse regarding state matters. Saudi Arabia continues to rank near the worst in the world in press freedom and democracy, and the outsize influence of the Saudi press may damage prospects for democracy in the Middle East at large through biased coverage. Saudi censorship contributes to the further erosion of democratic movements in the Middle East, and it is crucial to properly understand its effect. Examining Saudi coverage of Khashoggi’s death and UN investigator Agnes Callamard’s report provides insight into how Saudi Arabia is aiming to influence public discourse in the Arab world to protect its authoritarian interests.✝
The crown prince’s handling of the information about the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi is a clear example of how far MbS is willing to go to control Saudi public discourse regarding state matters.
Mechanisms of Saudi Censorship
The Saudi media and internet are among the most censored in the world, but few outlets are directly owned by the Saudi government. However, because of the strict nature of Saudi censorship, any information about the royal family is drawn from the Saudi Press Agency (SPA). The government also wields major influence over editors-in-chief of news organizations because officials have a hand in their appointments, and the final responsibility for anything published by their outlet legally falls on these editors-in-chief. Decisions to publish information about the government are further complicated by several laws and governance structures, including a vague anti-terror law from February 2014 and the heavy hand of the Ministry of Culture and Information.
The enormous size of the royal family makes it hard to say how much of a relationship members have to the levers of power, but they clearly have a vested interest in maintaining the current system and exercise their influence in intentional ways. More generally, it is beneficial to stay on the good side of the government because officials can easily shut down outlets or remove editors. In fact, both of these methods were used to silence Khashoggi before he was permanently banned from Saudi media in December 2016 for his critiques of then President-elect Donald Trump.
Because of government efforts to restrict information, Saudi citizens have often adapted by seeking foreign news sources for information on important events, whether local or international.
As with any system of censorship, there are limits to the power of Saudi methods. Because of government efforts to restrict information, Saudi citizens have often adapted by seeking foreign news sources for information on important events, whether local or international. The Saudi authorities have become acutely aware of this issue; in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death, trackers noted an increase in the number of censored news websites in the country. In addition, censored Saudi media often still succeed in agenda setting more broadly, thus shaping the parameters of the debate in important ways.
Timeline and Terminology
The Saudi coverage of Khashoggi’s death and UN investigator Agnes Callamard’s report provide a good idea of how Saudi censorship functions. The timeline of reports of the event reveals an important aspect of Saudi censorship. Khashoggi disappeared on October 2, 2018, and coverage of his case started to appear on October 3. Al Jazeera first reported on the incident on October 3. No Saudi outlets mentioned the incident until October 4, when the Saudi Press Agency published its report. After the SPA’s account was released, Saudi outlets covered the story by republishing the SPA press release. These examples show that no outlet has been willing to report on the Khashoggi case before the SPA sets the standard. Such a trend can also be observed in articles about Agnes Callamard’s report. The SPA press release came out on the same day as her report, and coverage by other Saudi sources was essentially just reprinting the release. This can be contrasted with more thoroughly reported stories from CNN Arabic and BBC Arabic.
The SPA press release references Khashoggi’s “disappearance.” Saudi outlets maintained this term initially despite other sources using the terms “killing” or “murder.” The SPA first used the term “killing” on October 7 in a brief press release refuting the Turkish side of the story. An article in Asharq Al-Awsat used the term the next day. Al Jazeera generally employed “disappearance” in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death, but an article from October 7 uses the term “assassination” for the first time. This has become the standard term that Al Jazeera uses to refer to the incident, but no Saudi outlets have followed suit. Saudi coverage also generally refers to Khashoggi simply as a “citizen.”. In this way, media outlets in the kingdom are subtly legitimizing a certain level of state control over Khashoggi, who was, after all, a Saudi citizen.
While the Saudi media have referred to Khashoggi interchangeably as a Saudi citizen or journalist, international outlets have generally only called him a journalist or a media personality.
Similar trends in reporting can be seen after the release of Agnes Callamard’s report. While the Saudi media have referred to Khashoggi interchangeably as a Saudi citizen or journalist, international outlets have generally only called him a journalist or a media personality. These small differences in terminology deserve special attention because they can have a serious effect on how readers interpret stories.
Story Selection and Tone
The story selection and tone of Saudi reporting reflect a theme of deflection, distraction, and delegitimization. One story that became popular in the Saudi press in the days following Khashoggi’s death was the somewhat unusual nature of Khashoggi’s relationship with his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. Many articles said that Khashoggi’s family members were unaware of who Cengiz was, implying that Khashoggi was trying to hide her from his family. Another article displays a picture of MbS with Khashoggi’s nephew, which seems to connote that Khashoggi’s family had absolved the young prince of responsibility for the killing. There were also multiple articles about calls and meetings in which King Salman and MbS spoke with Khashoggi’s sons. This deflects attention away from more serious discussion about why and how Khashoggi was killed.
An article in the online newspaper Sabq, published shortly after the release of Callamard’s UN report, illustrates similar themes. The source of the article is the director of the Saudi American Public Relations Affairs Committee, to which the article refers in its English acronym SAPRAC and as an American entity—without noting that its previous president, Salman al-Ansari, was forced to register as a foreign agent while representing the organization. In the article, the current director aims to delegitimize Callamard by claiming that she is biased in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood; at the same time, the article also attempted to distract from the Khashoggi case by referencing the death of a Palestinian man in Turkey, Zaki Mubarak, and accusing Turkish authorities of responsibility for it. This shows that themes of selective source and story choices remain relevant as the account of Khashoggi’s death continues to unfold. It is also noteworthy that no Saudi outlets have accused de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman of having a hand in Khashoggi’s assassination despite serious accusations from Callamard and the CIA.
The theme of distraction is particularly clear in editorials in the Saudi media. It is interesting to consider several op-eds published by Al Arabiya, which is at the front lines of the information war with Qatar’s Al Jazeera. Several op-eds on the network’s website take direct aim at foreign media sources and accuse them of biased reporting. (For example, Saudi journalist Mamdouh al-Muhaini tried to frame Qatari coverage as part of the foreign policy opposing Saudi Arabia in an editorial entitled “Why does the [Muslim] Brotherhood-affiliated Qatari media care about the Khashoggi case?”) While it is true that there is hostility between Qatar and Saudi Arabia at present and that Qatari media generally report unfavorably about Saudi Arabia, this type of article seems to be more about distraction than analysis. Al-Muhaini once again questions foreign media in another article titled “What is the left-wing media’s problem with Saudi Arabia?” This article distracts from the basic questions of the Khashoggi case by comparing left-wing American media to Qatari media and further asking, “What is the left-wing media’s problem with the Trump Administration and with Republican administrations in general?
It is also noteworthy that no Saudi outlets have accused de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman of having a hand in Khashoggi’s assassination despite serious accusations from Callamard and the CIA.
In another editorial, journalist Osama Saraya posits that the Khashoggi case is just a cover to allow foreign forces to criticize Riyadh. Another op-ed entitled “Khashoggi… the false stories” is a broad criticism of what the author deems to be false coverage of the Khashoggi case. When considered together, these articles give a useful picture of how Al Arabiya works explicitly to delegitimize media sources that do not match Saudi interests—while also distracting from the central issues of the Khashoggi case.
These examples stand in sharp contrast to any coverage provided by western—and other Arab—media. This does not mean that the Saudi media ignored the international scope of the story; notably, comments made by President Donald Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton did made headlines there. In an article from Al-Riyadh, Trump’s comments about wanting to maintain a relationship with Saudi Arabia and blaming the war in Yemen on Iran share other headlines. Another article from Asharq Al-Awsat covered Bolton’s comments implying that tapes of Khashoggi’s killing gave no real proof of culpability on the part of the Saudi government. Though critical comments on Saudi Arabia came from both sides of the aisle in the US Congress after Khashoggi’s death, Saudi outlets have shown no interest in reporting them. In addition, Saudi news organizations have devoted considerable space to reporting on government comments calling for an end to the “politicization” of the Khashoggi case (see the SPA, among others). This strategy may sound familiar to consumers of American news.
Saudi Censorship and the Arab World
As the information war between Qatar and Saudi Arabia advances, public discourse in the Middle East will continue to suffer the consequences. Media giants like Asharq Al-Awsat and Al Arabiya are widely read and watched in the Arab world, meaning that the Saudi government can partially set the parameters of political debate in the region. This is of deep concern because the Saudi government has shown no interest in supporting freedom of the press and democracy in the Arab world.
The Trump Administration has made matters worse by consistently failing to criticize MbS or the Saudi government for their role in Khashoggi’s death. This failure to respond effectively has emboldened the crown prince and shielded him from real accountability.
The Trump Administration has made matters worse by consistently failing to criticize MbS or the Saudi government for their role in Khashoggi’s death. This failure to respond effectively has emboldened the crown prince and shielded him from real accountability. In addition, Washington has provided Saudi outlets with quotes from high-level US officials which show that they side with the Saudi government over the international community at large.
These patterns illustrate some of the ways that the Saudi government’s influence affects media across the Middle East. Khashoggi himself identified the dangerous link between the Arab media and oppressive regimes in his final op-ed, published 14 days after his death. In the piece, Khashoggi argues that democracy has little hope of gaining ground in the region while journalists are imprisoned and media organizations are muzzled. His insight underlines the importance of pushing for press freedom across the region while holding leaders to account for their crimes.
In order to curb the creeping influence of Saudi press restrictions, the international community must be unflinching in its condemnation of Saudi censorship and the extralegal killing of Jamal Khashoggi. There also needs to be concrete responses from US officials. Members of Congress would be wise to continue their fight to end support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and perhaps even push to prevent Saudi Arabia from hosting the G20 summit next year. At the same time, international leaders should criticize MbS’s vague use of national security laws to further cement his grip over the Saudi press. It behooves the international community to give concrete support to journalists and dissidents who are fighting for press freedom in Arab countries by providing them with asylum or other protections. Jamal Khashoggi’s death was a great tragedy for all of those who fight for press freedom, and the international community cannot leave his peers unprotected as the fight continues.
* The subject matter in this paper has necessitated the use of several Arabic-language sources. Space limitations, however, prevent us from identifying them singly in a footnote. The editors assure the readers that these sources have been vetted rigorously and meet Arab Center Washington DC’s standard for accuracy.
✝ Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Propaganda Model provides the framework of analysis for this piece, with a focus on three of its five filter elements: ownership of mainstream media sources, reliance on elites as sources, and advertising as the primary source of revenue.