It’s been more than a month since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which Riyadh has admitted was a “rogue operation”. But, given the ensuing geopolitical public relations disaster, one might have thought that the Saudi authorities dealing with the media would be on their best behaviour.
However, news has surfaced of another Saudi journalist, Turki bin Abdulaziz al-Jasser, who was arrested eight months ago and allegedly tortured to death while in detention. Al-Jasser ran what he thought was an anonymous account on Twitter, a platform that used to be a proxy public square for Saudis, but where an army of trolls has poisoned debate, harasses dissidents and spreads misinformation.
The mastermind of that campaign was Saud al-Qahtani, who worked behind the scenes as an enforcer for Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS).
As his boss conducted a charm offensive on the western media, al-Qahtani ensured journalists back home toed the line and critics stayed quiet. He was reportedly fired over his role in the Khashoggi killing, but the chilling effect of his work remains.
“He [Qahtani] is not only implicated in Khashoggi’s murder but in the kidnapping of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. He is a very powerful man, not only in terms of shaping public opinion but in executing Mohammad bin Salman’s decisions,” says Feras Abu Helal, editor-in-chief, Arabi21.
But besides al-Jasser, there are countless others who are missing or imprisoned for their online political activities, according to Ali al-Ahmed, director of The Institute for Gulf Affairs, and former Saudi political prisoner.
“There is a famous journalist, an opinion columnist, Turad al-Amri. He has disappeared and we don’t know if he is free or not. Ali al-Dhufairi, who worked for Al Jazeera Arabic has gone silent for over two years. We don’t know if he’s in jail or not. Israa al-Ghomgham, they want to send her to death because she actually used social media to write about the protest in the eastern province in Qatif.”
But even in the diaspora, Saudis are not “immune,” points out Sahar Khamis, associate professor at the University of Maryland. “They were trying to bug Omar Abdulaziz and get into his accounts and get into his social media platforms. And that’s why some of them are stopping their activism.”
In Riyadh, the latest official explanation of the Khashoggi murder places the blame on five allegedly rogue operatives who, according to the foreign minister, could face the death penalty. Saud al-Qahtani faces a travel ban, but nothing more.
Meanwhile, his boss MBS – who apparently was completely unaware of the operation that killed one of his most prominent critics – can be seen on Saudi television – meeting with investors, visiting soldiers wounded in the war in Yemen and smiling for selfies with Saudi children.
As the Saudi press is “going about their business of trying to show him as the responsible leader, statesman who has Saudi interests at heart”, says Chris Doyle, director of The Council for Arab-British Understanding, “I think it’s questionable whether this will work right now, certainly it won’t work internationally.”
Ali al-Ahmed, The Institute for Gulf Affairs
Feras Abu Helal, editor-in-chief, Arabi21
Sahar Khamis, associate professor, University of Maryland
Chris Doyle, director, The Council for Arab-British Understanding
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