Turkey slams Saudi Arabia for Jamal Khashoggi's death despite its own dismal record on press freedom

  • Turkish officials blew the whistle on the Jamal Khashoggi's death and have passed gruesome allegations on to independent news outlets. But experts say the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains far from a paragon of free information.
  • According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit free press advocacy group, Turkey has been the world's leading jailer of journalists for the past two years.
  • Turkish officials, speaking to news outlets on condition of anonymity, said Saudi Arabia sent a 15-man hit crew to the consulate that tortured, murdered and dismembered Khashoggi.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on October 21, 2018. 
Cem Oksuz | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Turkey on October 21, 2018. 

Jamal Khashoggi's killing has unleashed waves of criticism against Saudi Arabia's ruling family and has drawn fresh attention to the kingdom's vice grip on the press.

But even as Turkish officials, who blew the whistle on the journalist's death, pass gruesome allegations on to independent news outlets, experts say the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is far from a paragon of free information.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a nonprofit free press advocacy group, Turkey has been the world's leading jailer of journalists for the past two consecutive years. Of the 262 journalists held behind bars in 2017, 73 of them — more than one in four — were jailed by the Turkish government, CPJ reported in its yearly prison census. Eighty-one journalists were jailed in Turkey in 2016, according to the group.

The scale of Turkey's crackdown on the press required CPJ to create a weekly blog to cover it all, Advocacy Director Courtney Radsch said in an interview.

Erdogan's regime has "overseen a massive decimation of the independent press," Radsch said, through actions such as government raids of news outlets, slapping travel restrictions on journalists and "forcing them to choose between jail and exile."

Both Saudi Arabia and Turkey are ranked near the worst countries on earth for a free and independent press in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, a list compiled by European nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders. Out of 180 countries, Saudi Arabia comes in at number 169; Turkey is ranked slightly higher at number 157.

Kim Jong Un's regime in North Korea ranks at the very bottom, while Norway tops the list.

Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who had criticized the kingdom in columns for The Washington Post, had been living in self-imposed exile in the United States. He said at the time that he feared for his safety and did not "want to be arrested," the Post reported. He went missing after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, reportedly to collect a document for his approaching wedding, and never came out.

The Saudi government maintained for weeks that Khashoggi left the consulate shortly after he arrived, but Turkish officials, speaking to news outlets on condition of anonymity, refuted that narrative. The Turks claimed to have evidence that the Saudis sent a 15-man hit crew to the consulate that tortured, murdered and dismembered Khashoggi.

The Kingdom changed its story last week, saying Khashoggi died after a fight broke out inside the building.

Turkey's status as the "world's worst jailer" of journalists came in the wake of a failed 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan by Turkish military forces. Hundreds of people died in the struggle, which ended when Erdogan reasserted control over the country. He soon began a sweeping purge of journalists, teachers and other public workers allegedly involved in the coup.

But after Khashoggi's disappearance, unnamed senior Turkish officials have been actively providing information to American news outlets about the killing. They also claim to possess audio tapes that corroborate their allegations.

"Maybe this is an opportunity to refurbish its image" on press freedom, Radsch said of Turkey, while noting that the two nations have maintained a tense political relationship.

Here in the states, President Donald Trump has often called the press "the enemy of the people" and "fake news." CPJ says that such accusations have a tangible effect on more authoritarian leaders' actions.

Trump's language "serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists," CPJ said.