Media and the Economization of Military Coercion: The Jamal Khashoggi Affair – Part III of III

Journalism in the past two decades has emerged as the most dangerous profession, not simply because Islamic terrorists beheaded Daniel Pearl, James Foley and Steven Sotloff, but because regimes all over the world have raped and murdered investigative reporters – the Mexicans, Javier Valdez and Carlos Dominguez Rodríguez, and Daphne Caruana Galizia from Malta. 27 have been killed so far this year. And that is only the most prominent ones. Between 1992 and 2018, 1,323 journalists were killed intentionally to stop their investigations. (Committee to Protect Journalists)

Additional selected names killed in 2018 alone include:
Abadullah Hananzai                  Radio Free Europe                     Afghanistan
Abdul Manan Arghand              Kabul News                               Afghanistan
Abdul Rahman Ismael Yassin   Hammouriyeh Media                 Syria
Abdullah al-Qadry                     Belqees News                            Yemen
Ahmad Abu Hussein                 Voice of the People                   West Bank

Ahmed Azize                             Aleppo News Network              Syria
Aleksandr Rastorguyev             Investigations Mgt. Centre        CAR, Africa
Ali Sialeemi                               Mashal TV                                Afghanistan
Ángel Eduardo Gahona             El Meridiano                              Nicaragua
Bashar al-Attar                          Arbin Unifeied Media Office     Syria
Gerald Fischman                       Capital Gazette                           USA
Ghazi Rasooli                            1TV                                            Afghanistan

At the end of last year, there were 262 journalists in prison. Two in Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were imprisoned for their honest reporting of the genocide of the Rohingya. However, not only journalists. The head of Interpol was even arrested and imprisoned in China at the same time as the Beijing government, intent on assimilation and uniformity in culture and language as well as obeisance to a nationalist “motherland,” confines up to 2 million Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region in “re-education” camps. Shohrat, an Uyghur himself, offers this apologetic for the detention: “the vocational education and training program” is “an effective measure that Xinjiang has explored to eliminate the conditions and soil nurturing terrorism and extremism and prevent violent terrorist crimes.”

Of course, it has not helped, to say the least, that the serial liar, Donald Trump, repeatedly lambastes “fake news.” Who believes him when he tries to pedal backwards and abscond from holding Saudi Arabia responsible by expressing his “concern” and his assertion that, “we cannot let this happen?” Be assured that this would-be autocrat will not only “continue to let it happen,” but will facilitate it by his combination of mendacity and undermining of those who pursue the truth, and, thereby, undermining the very first amendment of the United States Constitution, a constitution that goes out of its way to protect one and only one profession – journalists.

However, in the economization of diplomacy, public relations is used to trump journalism. Instead of the search for facts, instead of transparency and objectivity providing the norms and guidelines, instead of truth standing up to power, primacy is given to the promotion of the interest of one’s client using economic influence and other techniques of persuasion. Public relations is in the persuasion business, not the truth-seeking business. It uses strategic communications to advance the interests of clients.

In some cases, as in this one, the behaviour of the client becomes too toxic even for public relations. Public relations firms withdraw. Even the public relations giant, Qorvis, which has a $280,000 monthly contract with the Saudis, adopted a watching brief.  It may follow the lead of the other three firms (the Harbour Group, the Glover Park Group and BGR) that dropped the Saudi file. But Qorvis is not the only one left picking Saudi pockets. Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, Hogan Lovells, Squire Patton Boggs and the McKeon Group still have a total of about $400,000 a month in contracts.
However, the lead for public relations as a cover-up has been taken over by states directly – the alleged perpetrator of the sin and its allies and supporters.

The method used is standard. First, concoct an alternative narrative even if highly improbable. Line up your defenders and undermine your detractors. Use economic influence to bring your satraps and allies to speak on your behalf. You want publicity that will excuse you, not forgive you let alone present you in the best light. But the latter is an important preamble – present yourself as a stalwart proponent of peace and a bulwark against terrorism, as a key ingredient for order and stability in a threatening world.

When the highest officials of a state are behind the murder of a high-profile journalist in a foreign state and the regime is caught virtually red-handed, that is terribly difficult. It is not sufficient to repeat the slogan, “Advertising is what you pay for and publicity is what you pray for,” for prayer will be insufficient. One will have to pay through the nose to get rid of the fetid odour. But in this type of case, that may not be enough, especially if MsB cannot wash the blood off his hands. Then there are two alternatives. Either he washes his hands in more blood and clamps down on those who challenge him, including possibly his father, King Salman.

Alternatively, MsB is sacrificed. King Salman has already ordered the Saudi public prosecutor to head a probe to determine responsibility for who was responsible for Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance. Will that be used to shield MsB from any responsibility, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, or serve him up on a platter to his myriad of enemies? King Salman could fire his son and either reinstate Muhammad bin Nayef as crown prince or promote MbS’s younger brother, Prince Khalid bin Salman, to the position of Crown Prince. After all, he has been recalled from Washington as the Saudi Arabian ambassador permanently. However, this may merely be a contingency move.

The public relations exercise will either be enhanced or buried in a blood bath wherein MbS, to keep his position, may murder his father and/or even his brother. Palace intrigue cannot become more akin to a Shakespearean tragedy than this. If MbS travels that route, will he betray his trusted men whom he sent to Istanbul and send them for a show trial? Or will he stand by them because they are needed for the bloody show down? After all, MbS and his fifteen henchmen can insist that they were only acting in accord with standing Saudi policy in which dissidents have been jailed and murdered. If MbS follows the well-travelled route strewn with blood, as Assad did in Syria, as Saudi’s enemies did in Iran, then persuasion will not count, just the instillation of fear and, where appropriate, economic pressure.

If MbS loses status or even his position as the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, if he becomes deeply wounded because he is forced to surrender his henchmen, even if he is replaced, do not expect an independent transparent process, but rather a public relations exercise built on Trump cacophony rather than building trust. The latter requires the independent and professional media to offer third party validation. The former requires only a controlled or a supine press and television.

In other words, what we have witnessed is the murder of a journalist as part of a process of destroying the enlightenment whether the soft or hard path of a cover-up emerges victorious. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, travelled to Riyadh to help determine which path will be taken and it will be a measure of America’s declining clout in helping determine the outlook. The fact that Pompeo said nothing of substance about the Khashoggi affair in his initial press conference, though the White House later backpedaled under a storm of criticism later in the day, is a clear indication that the cover-up in well on its way. As MbS said at the press conference, “We are strong and old allies. We face our challenges together — the past, the day of, tomorrow.” Pompeo chimed in, “Absolutely.”

President Trump picked up the theme he had already set in motion. He tweeted that once again he had spoken with MbS at the Pompeo meeting. MbS “totally denied any knowledge of what took place in their Turkish Consulate.” Late Wednesday, Trump was repeating the line, “innocent until proven guilty” and told the Associated Press that the Saudis were being “treated unfairly.”

The message is unequivocal and will be repeated in much the same form in the ensuing days and weeks. The Trump administration will join in providing a cover for the murder of a journalist with an American green card. After all, SA is an oil-rich nation. It just paid the US $100 million as a contribution to the costs of the American military in Syria. The problem is simply to contain the damage. Donald Trump, of course, has his own self-interest at stake. In 2015, Trump boasted, “Saudi Arabia, I get along with all of them. They buy apartments from me. They spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.”

Trump and his family continue to benefit financially from the Saudis. Saudis all stay at Trump facilities when they visit the US. We do not know how deep Kushner and his father-in-law are in loans from the Saudis. In contrast, the Turks seem to be playing a much more sophisticated game, dripping out new revealing items daily. More are to come. The Turks have expanded their probe to include the consular residence and the vehicles used by the embassy. The more evidence they have, the more I expect they will charge the Saudis for cooperating in the cover-up. The latest item I read was that the Turks had found traces of blood that had been painted over.

In the much larger picture, the media giants that dominate international discourse currently are no longer our traditional media. And hatred rather than cooperation has become the life blood of our internet world. In the name of freedom, killers are allowed to spew vitriolic hatred. (See the trial scenes in 22 July.) Those who spew that hate use electronic platforms and podiums which internet companies are just catching up on. Facebook, Instagram, Google, all still insist they are neutral platforms and not content providers and take no responsibility for the content, though Facebook has recently stood up to the plate and removed millions of phony addresses that spew forth lies.

The companies are hypocrites. Google will cancel a contract with the Pentagon on artificial intelligence lest their employees participate in “dirty hands” work, but Google prostrates itself before Beijing and facilitates the government spying on its citizens. Social media, as distinct from newspapers, magazine, radio and television, have been largely complicit in the hurricane of hate blowing around the globe.

However, at the centre of it all is to be found the White House. We have travelled over the last decade from a president who was great, but was still castrated and turned into a eunuch. He was succeeded by a clown whom few believed would succeed in winning the Republican nomination and, in spite of his success, few believed he could win the presidency. The fool fooled us all. Trump has destroyed any sense of civility that governed public life. Boundaries were torn to pieces as the Donald campaigned to build a wall. Fringe ideas became mainstream and this was taking place all around the globe.

We stand on the precipice of a communications apocalypse as social media now seems to be as much in the business of allowing clever escape artists to work their magic and from being responsible for their actions.

Let me end where I began with this series, with Jamal Khashoggi and three paragraphs from his last op-ed, “What the Arab world needs most if dree expression,” published in The Washington Post on 17 October 2018.

“I was recently online looking at the 2018 Freedom in the Worldreport published by Freedom House and came to a grave realization. There is only one country in the Arab world that has been classified as “free.” That nation is Tunisia. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait come second, with a classification of “partly free.” The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as “not free.”

“As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed. They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative. Sadly, this situation is unlikely to change.”

“Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate. There was a time when journalists believed the Internet would liberate information from the censorship and control associated with print media. But these governments, whose very existence relies on the control of information, have aggressively blocked the Internet. They have also arrested local reporters and pressured advertisers to harm the revenue of specific publications.”

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