October 10, 2018
Earlier this week, The New York Times published a column penned by Thomas Friedman, revealing off-the-record comments made about Saudi Arabia by the missing Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. BBC’s News Hour did something similar, releasing off-the-air comments by Khashoggi, prior to a scheduled interview on a totally different topic.
As an academic and commentator who works on authoritarian states, such decisions make me think twice about any conversations I’ll have with any news medium in the future. If I am detained—and I have been—the last thing I want is someone recklessly releasing off-the-record conversations I’ve done about my presumed captors.
Let us break this down a bit. Presumably, the BBC and Friedman made assessments about the impact of such comments, and the ethics of releasing them. They probably made calculations about where Khashoggi was, and precisely what had or is happening to him. The BBC has said as much. But herein lies the root of the issue: all of their calculations are speculative, and all of them are irrelevant.
This is not about someone else’s assessments of the risks to Khashoggi. Rather, this is about respecting the assessments he made himself. There are reasons why, when people speak to the media, they say certain things off the air, and certain things on the air. There are usually very careful calculations made. No-one should prejudice that, nor should anyone assume or presume to know what all those reasons are. Because they cannot know more than the person who made those choices in the first place.
I know this first-hand. My own research is on politics and religion—two very live-wire topics—in the West and Muslim communities worldwide, particularly the Arab world. In 2018, the number of autocrats and authoritarians that inhabit positions of power worldwide has increased substantially, and no less in the regions I study, including in the West. But also far beyond those regions: whether we are talking about Russia, China, or elsewhere. The risks have also increased, which human rights groups, academic organisations, and press freedom bodies will testify to. When scholars and academics consider those risks, we make all sorts of calculations. Sometimes they account for everything, and sometimes they don’t, which can leave them in difficult situations—like being detained, or worse.
But the risks, calculations and assessments are not for any other third party to second guess after they’ve been made. If activists, local researchers or other sources make a comment off the record about an autocrat, they have their reasons. Because it won’t be the interviewer, journalist or researcher that will pay the price if something goes wrong by releasing that private comment—it will always be someone else. I’m not a hero—but I do know the risks first-hand.
I want to be clear here: I’m not talking about a majority of journalists or researchers. Not by far. Indeed, the vast majority of journalists and researchers that work on these themes and areas are conscientious and uphold the basic ethics of their professions. I admire them a great deal, and have written in support of press freedom, the excellent work journalists do, and the bravery of researchers. But there is a minority that will try to bend the rules.
Maybe it makes the story sound better. Maybe it makes the point that they think needs to be made. Maybe they just wanted more hits on their websites in a crowded media market. I don’t know, and there are probably numerous reasons. But they are all irrelevant: it’s not the place of the interviewer to override the choice of the interviewee, especially when it comes to vulnerable people working in or on authoritarian states. And if those people are detained or missing, it is not a reason for anyone to abjure their decisions about confidentiality and privacy. To do so could put them, their family and their friends at risk—risks that may remain even if the interviewee passed away.
There are enough direct risks for researchers, local journalists and activists that work on autocrats or in authoritarian states to worry about. We do not need to add to those risks by being reckless about our sources that go to great pains to help us understand their communities and countries.
I do not know what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. I hope and pray he returns safe and sound to his family and friends. But releasing off-the-record conversations with him isn’t going to help, and it risks imprinting a very dangerous precedent for others.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in DC and the Royal United Services Institute in London. On Twitter @hahellyer
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.