Why Khashoggi killing sends chilling message to journalists

Activists protesting the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, hold a candlelight vigil outside Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. [AP]

The recent murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s Istanbul consulate has elicited mixed reactions from the international community and generated a lot of heat on Riyadh.

But what is seemingly lost on the world is what this heinous killing means for the freedom of the press globally. There is also the undying question of whether Turkey and the international community have any recourse against Saudi Arabia, especially now that evidence points towards a well-orchestrated murder by senior Saudi intelligence officials, or if they are willing to take it.

Due to diplomatic immunities and privileges, host countries cannot initiate criminal proceedings against diplomatic missions and their officials for crimes allegedly committed by these envoys. However, these immunities can be waived, but only by the sending state. In this case, only Saudi Arabia can waive diplomatic immunities for Turkey to take legal action against its officials suspected to be involved in Khashoggi’s killing. The host state, however, can only step in by way of severing ties with the other.

But why would Istanbul cut ties with its long-time friend just because a journalist has been killed? Turkey has deep-rooted historical and cultural ties with Saudi Arabia that dates back to 1932. On Monday, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told reporters in Ankara that Saudi Arabia is an “important, brotherly and friendly” country and Turkey does not want to hurt their relationship over the Khashoggi case.

Can the international community act against Saudi Arabia? Certainly. But would they? There is no world government and the so-called international community is a creation of states to protect their own interests.

Even international organisations, including the United Nations, only operate at the behest of their member states. If, for instance, the UN Security Council decides to order sanctions against Riyadh, one or all the permanent members can veto that decision. And it becomes clearer each passing day since the journalist’s death that the US may not allow sanctions against a country President Donald Trump has repeatedly described as a “very good ally”.

Saudi Arabia is an important country to the West. First, it possesses about 18 per cent of the world’s proven oil reserves and is the world’s biggest oil exporter, according to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec). Secondly, in 2017, the country signed a $110 billion (Sh11.1 trillion) arms deal with the US, with options running as high as $350 billion (Sh35.4 trillion) over 10 years. The deal was described by the White House as the single biggest in US history. In an editorial published on Sunday, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV said imposing sanctions on the kingdom would result in “an economic disaster that would rock the entire world”.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 45 journalists have been killed worldwide this year alone, 28 of which were murder cases, most of which by the state, an indictment on what countries can do to protect their interests.

Since he was elected to office, Trump, for example, has maintained the mantra that the media are an agent of fake news. Due to these reckless remarks, a number of journalists have been attacked by the public in the US and other parts of the world. Back home, President Uhuru Kenyatta has been infamous with his “gazeti ni ya kufunga nyama” derogatory remark.
Based on these statistics and arguments, the verdict is that journalists world over are on their own because even the independent non-governmental organisations that struggle to protect them have their limits.

In Kenya, the government has been consistently fighting NGOs since Jubilee took power in 2013. Realists in international relations describe a national interest as something that a state is ready to go to war to protect and this war against the media will never end. The risk is even higher for journalists whose media organisations are used by states to protect these interests.

- The writer is a graduate student of international studies at the University of Nairobi and an editor at The Standard Group