Whatever the CIA says about the Khashoggi case, the West has a long history of not defending reporters

  • Jamal Khashoggi's murder has caused international uproar' but scores of journalists around the world have been attacked, detained or murdered.
  • The CIA says it will release a report on Khashoggi's death.
  • Whether the CIA's full report leads to any schism in relations between the West and Saudi Arabia is debatable; the severe mistreatment of journalists hasn't bothered some Western governments much before.
Demonstrators hold photographs of journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. 
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Demonstrators hold photographs of journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the White House in Washington, D.C., on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. 

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has put a strain on political and economic relations between Saudi Arabia and the West, but around the world scores of journalists have been detained, gone missing or been murdered in recent years and the Western world has turned a blind eye.

On Sunday, word came that the CIA blamed Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for the murder, with sources close to the agency saying it had assessed the evidence in detail. The kingdom again denied any involvement in the death. President Donald Trump said the CIA's assessment was "premature" and that there was "no reason" for him to listen to an audio recording purportedly of Khashoggi's murder.

On Tuesday, Trump threw his weight behind the Saudi regime wholeheartedly, despite an apparent difference of opinion with his intelligence agency. In a lengthy statement, Trump said "we may never know all of the facts surrounding" Khashoggi's death, but "our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Trump's reluctance to punish Saudi Arabia, or to listen to the tape for that matter, doesn't come from squeamishness or fear, it comes from wanting to protect lucrative business ties with the country. In 2017 alone, Trump and King Salman signed a near-$110 billion defense package and Trump is mindful that Saudi Arabia has a most powerful weapon in its influence over oil prices.

"What really matters is that the U.S. has withdrawn from pressuring countries more generally over human rights." -Simon Baptist, global chief economist, the Economist Intelligence Unit

On Tuesday, Trump was explicit about wanting to protect the American diplomatic and economic relationship with the oil producer, saying: "They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels — so important for the world."

Whether the CIA's full report leads to any schism in political and economic relations between the West and Saudi Arabia is now looking even more doubtful, given Trump's comments. So far, the U.S. and Europe have only issued sanctions targeted at individuals alleged to have had a role in the murder.

But of course, the murder or mistreatment of journalists hasn't bothered some Western governments that much before.

There are numerous examples of journalists being assaulted or imprisoned, missing or murdered all over the world. While many journalists' deaths occur in times of civil unrest and conflict during the dangerous process of reporting, others take place in nominally peaceful and prosperous times.

The common denominator in journalists' murders is that they tend to come after a reporter has investigated and exposed wrongdoing or has criticized those in positions of power and influence. And just as we've seen in the investigation into Khashoggi's murder, there is often uncomfortable evidence to link top officials to these deaths.

In India, Russia and China — top trading partners of the West — being a journalist is one of the most dangerous vocations you can pursue.

In Russia, 38 journalists have been murdered between 1992 and 2018, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In India, 34 journalists have been murdered in the same time period. These murders are invariably linked to the investigative or critical work of the journalist. In China, more than 50 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in "conditions that pose a threat to their lives," according to Reporters Without Borders.

And in Myanmar just two months ago, the government handed down seven-year sentences to two Reuters journalists who were investigating the killing of 10 Rohingya men and boys by security forces. Myanmar's leader once celebrated leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, claims the journalists were jailed for handling official secrets.

'Doing things on an ad hoc basis'

Simon Baptist, global chief economist at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) said Trump's support for Saudi Arabia undermines attempts to improve human rights.

"What's more concerning, I think, is the run-down in international human rights infrastructure. What really matters is that the U.S. has withdrawn from pressuring countries more generally over human rights," he told CNBC's Capital Connection on Wednesday.

"Actually, doing things on an ad hoc basis — like pressure on this killing but not on that one, or on this abuse and not on that abuse — it actually reduces the incentives for countries to put systematic improvements for their human rights in place." He predicted a gradual "return to business as usual" when it comes to the West's relationship with Saudi Arabia.

We will see if there are international sanctions on Saudi Arabia if it is deemed to have played a role in Jamal Khashoggi's death, but we shouldn't expect the punishment to be long-lasting or too damaging. Recent history has shown us that Western governments rarely let the rough treatment of journalists, or even their murders, get in the way of business.