The hypocrisy of Turkey’s 'outrage' over the death of Khashoggi

As many as 153 Turkish journalists were reportedly in prison at the end of last year, according to the US State Department's human rights report.
Wednesday 24/10/2018
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey October 24, 2018. (Reuters)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey October 24, 2018. (Reuters)

Ever since Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi disappeared October 2 into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, US media have shown little restraint in condemning the man’s death.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish officials have been relentless in their condemnation of Saudi Arabia. Turkish officials claim they have an audiotape of Khashoggi’s killing.

They released pictures of the 15 men they say were Saudi operatives sent from Riyadh to kill Khashoggi. On October 23, Erdogan made a speech in which he openly attacked the Saudis and claimed they had spent days plotting the killing.

US journalists are beginning to point out the hypocrisy of Turkey’s position on Saudi Arabia and how Turkish officials -- Erdogan in particular -- have “played” American media and political figures.

One of the first people to bring this to the public’s attention was Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in Strategy at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. Cordesman wrote an article for the CSIS website titled “The Other Side of the Khashoggi Tragedy.”

In the article, Cordesman admitted it was hard to believe Saudi Arabia did not bear responsibility for Khashoggi’s death but he also pointed out the hypocrisy of Turkey’s “outrage” over the death of a US-based Saudi journalist.

Cordesman said the outrage comes from a government that was described in the US State Department’s “2017 Country Reports on Human Rights,” released last April, as “actively repressing far more people than Saudi Arabia.”

He noted that while this is not a region where “most governments hesitate to eliminate legitimate opposition elements,” the US State Department made clear Turkey does not lag “in the comparative body count” nor has it “shown any more concern for its prisoners than Saudi Arabia seems to have shown for Khashoggi.”

The State Department’s human rights report noted that, by the end of 2017, Turkey had “dismissed or suspended more than 100,000 civil servants from their jobs, arrested or imprisoned more than 50,000 citizens and closed 1,500 nongovernmental organisations.” The report documented the extent of the Turkish government’s prosecution of independent journalists, noting that journalistic sources said there were as many as 153 Turkish journalists in prison at the end of last year.

After Cordesman’s article appeared, several US outlets picked up on the theme of Turkish hypocrisy but Cordesman said too little attention has been paid to “the fact that in many ways this is a contest between two very authoritarian and repressive regimes.”

“A lot of others have simply singled out Saudi Arabia, which has its flaws, but they have not put anything into perspective and I think what has been particularly weak has been the effort to really look at the strategic importance of Saudi Arabia and the need to find some way both to deal with the Khashoggi murder and preserve what is a strategic relationship because in this region you don’t have ‘correct’ partners,” Cordesman said.

He added that part of the problem was that the Saudis played into Turkish hands with their delayed response and confused stories. “I think that first it is a horrible crime and it is remarkably stupid in terms of the target and you would be hard put to find an operation that was more visibly and stupidly carried out," Cordesman said. "You created an almost ideal model of how not to carry out a covert operation. One problem is that if you make yourself into the ideal target, sooner or later somebody’s going to go for you.”

Cordesman said Erdogan has been quick to seize the opportunity and “played” the Western media, which relies on a flood of instant news with little perspective. He added that Western media and politicians largely ignored Turkey’s awful record on human rights, its treatment of journalists and rendition of its citizens to Turkey. Erdogan “played this very skilfully while the Saudi side was very stupid in the way it conducted its public relations campaign as it practically begged to get negative coverage.”

Can Saudi Arabia recover from the negative coverage and, if so, how long will it take?

“You never know for about six weeks,” Cordesman said. "A lot of these things go away fairly quickly but the question is still going to be we haven’t seen any of this come to the point where you know what the Saudi reaction is really going to be.”

Cordesman pointed to another unknown: “All these things are still to be played out. Then the question is whether the kingdom does anything proactive that would convince people it has learned from this lesson.”