Reviews | Turkey, no friend of press freedom, finally sells Khashoggi

Erol Onderoglu is Reporters Without Borders’ representative in Turkey.

After years of lecturing the world on Western hypocrisy – for criticizing Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapons, calling for the arrest of Turkish journalists and activists and failing to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul – Turkey is apparently ready to join their ranks.

On March 31, the Turkish prosecutor in charge of the Khashoggi case requested that the trial be moved to Saudi Arabia, the very country that ordered the assassination. The prosecutor’s decision was a surprising U-turn by the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who counted Khashoggi as a friend. In the days and months following the murder, the Turkish government played a key role in implicating Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, in the murder by releasing recordings, surveillance footage and other documents.

Handing the case over to Saudi Arabia, a repressive regime lacking even the pretensions of a free press or an independent judiciary, would deal a serious blow to any remaining chance of justice for Khashoggi’s killers. It will also send a chilling signal about Turkey’s respect for press freedom.

To be sure, Turkey has a far from stellar record when it comes to murdering and repressing journalists. The case of the eminent writer and journalist Musa Anter, who was assassinated in 1992 in Diyarbakir, has long languished without a solution. Similarly, the assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 in the heart of Istanbul was attributed to the Gülenist network, but the masterminds behind the attack were never brought to justice.

The prosecution of Khashoggi’s murder reflects a real challenge for a Turkish judicial system whose independence is increasingly threatened by government interference. The decision to move the trial appears to be part of a wider policy shift from above to try to smooth relations with the oil-rich Saudi regime. It is hard to believe that a single prosecutor could have the “independent initiative” of such a request, which not only defies common sense, but questions the legal status and competence of the government.

As recently as 2019, Erdogan, writing in The Post on the anniversary of Khashoggi’s murder, said: “It’s no secret that there are many questions about the proceedings judiciary in Saudi Arabia. The almost total lack of transparency surrounding the trial, the lack of public access to hearings and the allegation that some of Khashoggi’s murderers enjoy de facto freedom does not meet the expectations of the international community and tarnishes the image of Saudi Arabia.

So we can also be excused if we express skepticism about Turkey’s reversal.

But there were earlier signs that the government’s resolve was starting to show cracks. Last March, the court denied a request by Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, to admit as evidence the declassified US intelligence report naming the crown prince as responsible for approving Khashoggi’s capture or murder. In fact, the investigation never directly targeted MBS.

Erdogan tried to have it both ways, posing and pretending to be outraged by his friend’s murder, while being careful not to damage the relationship with the kingdom. In 2020, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met his Saudi counterpart at a summit, a first between the two ministers since Khashoggi’s assassination. “A strong partnership between Turkey and Saudi Arabia will benefit not only our countries, but the whole region,” Cavusoglu said. wrote in a tweet.

It is now clear that Turkey – a serial offender when it comes to restriction of the press and freedom of expression – wasn’t going to keep up the pressure. Justice seems to be just a token to be exchanged for mutual political and economic benefit.

Khashoggi’s brutal murder shocked the world and sparked widespread outrage. But after three years and a weak international response to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — ranked 153rd and 170th respectively in the RSF World Press Freedom Index – seem content to let the affair fade from memory, with each regime ever more emboldened to act with impunity against the free press.

We can’t let them get away with it.

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