Jamal Khashoggi: Freedom through the press

A vision for the future of the Middle East

“There is only one Arab country that has enough political and civil liberties to be classified as free.” This insight, written by Jamal Khashoggi, the late Saudi Arabian journalist, began the Op-Ed he would send to The Washington Post days before his disappearance.

His article is a description of the post-Arab Spring landscape of the Middle Eastern press. It paints a picture of a people who are kept isolated from all outside information by the state in their efforts to quiet all potential cries for democracy and any criticism of authority.

Saudi Arabia in particular is an absolute monarchy that has a history of suppressing information and of shutting down or incarcerating members of the Saudi press, including Khashoggi. Khashoggi was one of the most important windows into the Middle Eastern world for post-9/11 journalism, able to give insight into why some Muslims would take such extremes as the hijackers did. 

He was also a staunch critic of Saudi Arabia’s enforcement of religious tenants and suppression of the press and free speech, a role for which he was fired twice from his own paper for running cartoons and stories that were critical of the state. He was banned from ever appearing on Saudi Arabian television by Saudi authorities after criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump in 2016.

In a Washington Post column from April, Khashoggi stated that Saudi Arabia “should return to its pre-1979 climate,” a time when the government actually prohibited religious doctrine that interfered with civil and political liberties.

He wanted equal rights for men and women in the Middle East. He also believed that Middle Eastern citizens should be able to speak their mind without fear of government suppression.

The suppression of information and the press was first enforced in 2011 following the Arab Spring, where one of the most impressive feats of protest organization through social media ever resulted in widespread protest against political corruption, authoritarianism, low standards of living and a slew of other factors.

Many journalists saw protests as a triumph and hoped that the Arab Spring would be the catalyst for a democratically free Middle East. But for some countries such Syria and Libya the Arab Spring and the aftermath has caused complete societal collapse. Tunisia remains the only country to have shifted to a constitutional democracy as a result of these protests. 

Governments cracked down on free speech and social media, and the most authoritarian among them did so to such an extent that the state-run narratives and government sponsored television networks were the only news citizens could see.

Khashoggi’s final Op-Ed was sent to the Washington Post before it was given its final edit, and it reveals his goal in all of his years of journalism: free press in the Middle East. He writes about the Free Europe Radio that Soviet-controlled Europe had during the Cold War and remarks that the Arab World is undergoing a similar situation and may need a similar solution. 

He dreamt of creating an “independent international forum” which not only could be a platform for Arab voices to address problems in the Arab world but also a platform for Arab voices free from the narratives of authoritarian governments.

Khashoggi truly believed that an informed Middle Eastern people could reignite the spark of hope that was first kindled in the Arab Spring. 


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