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Reality as a matter of opinion

Zarrar Khuhro |

At the risk of outing myself as a Zionist agent, I have to confess that one of my favourite words is ‘chutzpah’. It’s a Yiddish word — a language that was used by Jewish communities in central Europe. As with most such words, something is always lost in translation, but it roughly translates as “gall, brazen nerve, effrontery, incredible ‘guts’, presumption plus arrogance”.

It’s this word that comes to mind when looking at the Saudi handling of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. The details of the case — with all its incredible twists, mysterious black vans and alleged interrogation/ execution/ dismemberment teams — have riveted the world and will likely continue to do so until the media cycle inevitably moves on to the next attention-grabbing atrocity.

In the meantime, we are witnessing incredible irony and also some rather refreshing honesty. The irony is found in Turkish President Erdogan — a veteran jailer of journalists — cast in the role of the world leader most outraged by Khashoggi’s disappearance. To be fair, perhaps not even Erdogan could have dreamed up the kind of caper the Saudis seem to have pulled off, with the incredible disregard they have shown for any kind of consequence, but his outrage is likely less due to the disappearance of the Saudi journalist in exile, but rather to the way his country’s soil has been used as the scene of the crime. Human rights violations (and even murder) are one thing, but Erdogan doesn’t appreciate being made to look like the leader of a soft state.

An ocean away, another aspiring strongman also finally spoke out on the disappearance, with Donald Trump calling it a “terrible, terrible precedent” but otherwise washing his hands off of it and — here’s where the refreshing honesty comes in — shrugged off questions about action against Riyadh by saying, in effect, that the military and business deals with Saudi Arabia were too important to jeopardise.

Now that’s just the plain truth: Republican or Democrat, Trump or Obama, the strategic interests and economic imperatives of the US remain constant, and while there may be bipartisan clucking in the short-term, in the long-term it will all be business as usual. That’s just how the world works, whether we like it or not. Besides, a man who openly calls the media ‘the enemy of the people’ and whose supporters routinely use the Nazi era term ‘Lügenpresse’ (lying press) against journalists they dislike shouldn’t really be expected to care about a single Khashoggi.

Inconvenient journalists are generally disliked anyway, with their habit of asking annoying questions and not swallowing state narratives whole. That can lead to often fatal choking, as likely took place in the case of murdered Bulgarian investigative journalist Viktoria Marinova, who was found raped and murdered in a park. Just as we don’t know for sure (yet) whether Khashoggi is alive or dead, we do not know why Marinova was killed, though in her last show she conducted interviews with journalists who had been detained after trying to dig out a story involving massive corruption in EU-funded projects. Shortly before signing off on her last TV show, Marinova — the third journalist killed in an EU country in the past 12 months — said, “The number of forbidden topics is growing all the time… Investigative journalists are being systematically removed.”

Reality is increasingly becoming a matter of opinion, of course, and the weaponisation of fake news — what we used to call propaganda in simpler times — is a primary instrument in the information wars of the modern era. Some of it is laughable, like a report on Jamal Khashoggi that was recently published in a Lebanese newspaper and eagerly peddled by pro-Saudi social media accounts.

In this stellar piece on investigative journalism, the paper claims that Khashoggi’s Turkish fiancé is actually a man, a member of the Muslim brotherhood in fact, wearing a disguise. The paper also ran a CCTV image of what they claimed was Khashoggi leaving the consulate but was in fact a deliberately poorly Photoshopped picture made by an Egyptian comedian as a joke, but one eagerly picked up by media and social media bent upon proving that the entire episode was a conspiracy against Saudi Arabia.

The goal is simple: if you can’t convince them, confuse them. The disappearance of Khashoggi did not take place in a vacuum. For months on end, propaganda accounts targeted him relentlessly, calling him a traitor and worthy of death. Naturally, no proof as such was ever presented (Khashoggi’s criticism of the Saudi government was fairly mild) but frequency and ferocity often does the trick.

A lie, if retweeted enough, does become the truth for enough people. It’s enough to muddy the waters so no one can actually see what lurks in the depths. Just a few days back the hashtag #ArrestEnemiesOfState was trending on Pakistani Twitter, and you get no prizes for guessing who the targets of this campaign were. Here’s a clue: they were not those who openly call for the murder of judges with full impunity.