As suspicions grew on Thursday that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi had been killed by a "hit team" commissioned by the Saudi government, human rights groups and Khashoggi's employer called on U.S. companies to bow out of an upcoming global business summit in Riyadh—and wondered why they had participated to begin with.
"An attack on one journalist should be considered an attack on all," the London-based organization Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) said, demanding that business leaders to boycott the Future Investment Initiative, also known as the "Davos of the Desert," taking place from October 23 to 25 with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hosting.
Khashoggi, who was born in Saudi Arabia and has written columns harshly criticizing the Saudi regime for its restrictions on free speech and its human rights abuses, disappeared on October 2 after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish officials—and a growing number of U.S. government leaders—believe he was murdered.
On Thursday afternoon, Los Angeles Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong announced he would not attend the meeting. His decision followed similar announcements by the New York Times, which said Wednesday that it would no longer serve as a media sponsor of the summit, and Zanny Minton Beddoes, the Economist editor-in-chief who also backed out of speaking at the conference.
Bloomberg, the Financial Times, and CNN are also media sponsors, while JP Morgan Chase executive Jamie Dimon and Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi are planning to attend. Erik Wemple, the Post's media critic, wrote on Wednesday that even before the news of Khashoggi broke last week, U.S. media's participation in a conference with the Saudis was questionable at best:
Moguls tend to attend investment conferences. But should U.S. media outlets be partnering with Saudi Arabia? The kingdom long occupied a low rung on international surveys of press freedoms, owing to its unwillingness to allow independent media. "The level of self-censorship is extremely high and the Internet is the only space where freely-reported information and views may be able to circulate, albeit at great risk to the citizen-journalists who post online," notes an assessment from Reporters Without Borders.
Karen Attiah, Global Opinions editor for the newspaper, also forcefully called on participants to withdraw.
American investors, media professionals and government officials are going to Saudi Arabia for its Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh Oct 23.
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— Karen Attiah (@KarenAttiah) October 11, 2018
Journalist Glenn Greenwald was among those who expressed approval of those who decided to cancel their plans to attend and sponsor the conference, but wondered why members of the media had participated to begin with, considering the Saudis' long history of human rights abuses—including its three-year assault on Yemen in a U.S.-backed war, in which at least 16,000 civilians have been killed.
"I'm glad to see this," Greenwald tweeted after Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin said he would not attend the meeting, "but I'm really left wondering why—of all the heinous, murderous, oppressive, evil, despotic acts the Saudi regime has been engaging in for decades—this was what finally made people decide they can't be engaged. Better late than never, I guess."
David Sirota also demanded to know why U.S. journalists would engage with the Saudis after many have reported for the last three years on the war in Yemen, where one of the Saudis' most recent airstrikes killed at least 22 children and four women.
Dear everyone at the NY Times now publicly congratulating yourself for not going to the Saudi dictator's investment conference because of the Kashoggi disappearance: please explain why you were originally planning to attend the conference even after this https://t.co/gYVGbLdqiZ
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) October 11, 2018
At Splinter, Hamilton Nolan noted that media companies' reluctance to take a firm stand against a government that's believed to have killed a U.S. resident and journalist, is matched by an administration which will likely never hold the Saudis accountable for Khashoggi's disappearance.
"The Saudis spend a lot of money on American-made weapons, and they are considered a 'strategic' ally in the Middle East, and we therefore overlook all of their human rights abuses, as we have for decades," wrote Nolan. "It is not as though this is the first Saudi Arabian human rights violation that we have kindly overlooked. The decision would not have been any different under Obama, or Bush, or Clinton. The U.S. government cares about arms sales and oil and military cooperation more than it cares about the life of a journalist. That is a fact."
And so, asked Nolan: "Do you think that anyone in the Trump administration actually, truly cares that Saudi Arabia probably kidnapped, murdered, and disappeared a journalist?"
The answer, he concluded: "No."