Killing journalists is no big deal.
“Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do,” said Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, the one international leader that he never criticizes or condemns.
They were joking together at the G20 summit meeting in Japan last Friday, and Putin replied: “We also have. It’s the same.”
No it isn’t. Twenty-six Russian journalists have been murdered since Putin became president, and the Russian media have become very cautious about what they say.
No journalists have been killed for political reasons in the United States on Trump’s watch, and the American media can still do their jobs. Some of them do, and some don’t, but there’s nothing new about that.
What is relatively new is that it’s getting seriously unhealthy for journalists in the Middle East to criticize the United States or its local allies. The highest-profile case of recent date was the slaughter of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul by a Saudi government death squad.
(Slaughter is the right word: they cut him up after they killed him.)
Khashoggi wrote for the Washington Post, so his murder attracted a lot of attention, but the group facing the biggest threat are the journalists who work for the Al Jazeera Media Network.
It’s the best news network in the Arab world (with a full English-language service as well), and it’s worried that Saudi Arabia is going to bomb its headquarters in Qatar.
In fact, the Al Jazeera management have been taking out full-page paid ads in leading world newspapers pointing out that they now face a “credible death threat” from Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, they’re right.
It began with a tweet in mid-June from high-ranking Saudi journalist Khaled al-Matrafi claiming that Al Jazeera’s headquarters was “a legitimate and logical target” for the Saudi-led, U.S.-backed coalition that has been bombing the living daylights out of Yemen for the past four years.
Al-Matrafi is not just some loose cannon. He is the former director of the Al Arabiya news channel, originally founded by relatives of the Saudi royal family to counter criticism coming from Al Jazeera.
He is also known to be close to the kingdom’s decision-makers (including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who probably gave the orders to murder and dismember Jamal Khashoggi).
Twitter took down al-Matrafi’s tweet after a day, but Al Arabiya is often used to convey official Saudi threats.
When Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies imposed a blockade on the small Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar in 2017 (partly to force it to close down Al Jazeera), Al Arabiya’s general manager at the time, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, warned that if Qatar did not submit, Al Jazeera staff (94 nationalities) would be massacred when the invasion came.
The invasion did not happen, probably due to American intervention, so Qatar is still independent and Al Jazeera is still in business. But Washington was trying to avoid embarrassment, not to save Al Jazeera. In fact, it generally sees the network as an enemy.
Back in 2001, when George Bush was planning the invasion of Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, urged him to bomb Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul and gave him its coordinates. By an amazing coincidence, the United States did bomb the Al Jazeera office in Kabul a couple of weeks later.
By an even more amazing coincidence, exactly the same sequence of events led to the destruction of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. The U.S. was given the office’s co-ordinates (by Al Jazeera itself this time), and U.S. forces proceeded to destroy the office – killing three journalists on that occasion.
So it’s understandable that the network’s journalists take a Saudi threat to attack them seriously, especially when it looks like the United States and Saudi Arabia are both thinking about going to war with Iran.
Or rather, Saudi Arabia is pushing for America to go to war with Iran, while the Saudis (and the Israelis) cheer from the sidelines.
Qatar, a small peninsula sticking out into the Gulf from the Arabian coast, is directly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It might not get invaded by Saudi Arabia in that hypothetical war, but would either the U.S. or Saudi Arabia take out Al Jazeera’s headquarters if a war gave them the excuse? Of course they would.
Would Saudi Arabia do it even before that war starts, using the Yemen war as a pretext, as Khaled al-Matrafi suggested this month?
Less likely, but not unthinkable. There’s not a great deal left that’s unthinkable in today’s Middle East.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).