Media and Autocracies: What we learned from the Jamal Khashoggi episode

                The news of Jamal Khashoggi murder and the developments thereafter continue to generate interest worldwide. This episode was unique as worldwide media played an important role to keep the issue at the top of the news cycle creating relentless pressure on all the parties involved, primarily United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

                          This issue also exposed the vulnerability of Saudi Arabia, and maybe that of autocracies worldwide to the 'always on' news cycle in the digital age. What was also evident was Saudi Arabia's inability to understand the Fourth Estate, how they operate and the impact it can have. Turkey, led by President Erdogan, had their media strategy in place and led the Saudis deeper and deeper into the issue and also made United States change it's stand on the issue multiple times. The perfectly timed drip feed leaks to Turkish media, most of which are state controlled, not only kept the issue alive but also built the narrative that eventually led Saudi Arabia to agree that it was indeed a 'premeditated murder.'

        The learning here is maybe autocracies like Saudi Arabia are increasingly vulnerable as media grows in its sophistication and reach. Their lack of experience in dealing with a free press was evident in the number of times they changed the official narrative and expected to get away with it. The photo opp with Khashoggi's son was a huge PR fiasco that only made it worse for them. There was a complete lack of understanding of the medium and the audience. Turkey, not the best of places for a free media to exist, on the other hand made good use of their government controlled media outlets and proximity to media hubs in Europe to drive the issue the way it wanted. Remember, when it comes to the World Press Freedom Index, both these countries rank really low. Turkey is ranked at 157, while Saudi Arabia at 169.

       Media had a significant role to play in the collapse of Soviet Union and clearly can be a crucial ally in ending autocratic rule worldwide. Autocracies are vulnerable as they do not understand how media works, especially the complexity today and won't be able to manage it. While they can control the press within their own borders, in an increasingly interconnected, conversational and globalized world, borders are meaningless. More so in the world of media. In this context, China had the foresight to create platforms like the Global Times to project the Chinese point of view to the world but we are yet to see how compelling a counter narrative it can create.
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