Over the past week I, like many of my colleagues who research international politics, have been focused on one man: Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who wrote critically of certain aspects of the Saudi ruling system and disappeared last week while in Istanbul, after entering the Saudi consulate. I hope and pray that he is returned safe and sound to his family. Khashoggi’s disappearance—and the international reaction to it—is also a warning and new source of concern for those of us who, like him, research or work in authoritarian states.
Most researchers and journalists are aware of the risks such people face, and they take their privacy and confidentiality seriously. Indeed, I’d say that’s an overwhelming majority. But there are also people who don’t. There are also researchers and journalists who, in their arrogance, think they know better than the people who make security assessments.
I’ve heard of seminars in autocratic states where the speaker has made it clear they need it to be a closed event—and organizers overrule them. I’ve heard of private workshops where participants are clear that they cannot have delegates from the embassies of certain countries—and they’re ignored. I’ve heard of interviewees in dictatorships who were clear that their comments were off the record—but the interviewer identified them anyway. Anyone who has ever felt the grip of an authoritarian system, be it Saudi, Turkish, Russian, or Chinese, understands the need for these precautions. But often, outsiders arrogantly believe they know better.
Over the past week there’s been a lot of admiration expressed publicly toward those who criticize autocrats and authoritarians, facing either government retaliation at home or exile abroad. But that admiration doesn’t always convert into respect; otherwise, we’d be a lot more careful about how we treat confidential discussions and the safety of sources and analysts on the ground.
Here is the reality for those who do work on authoritarian states, particularly those who are from those states or live in those states: They take it for granted that their phones might be tapped, that their online data might be hacked, that they might be arrested while working in those states or upon arrival in airports or deported for their opinions. They also know that far worse may take place. They continue their work because they believe in what they do, and they pay a price for it. And the truth is you’ve never even heard of the vast majority of them.
It’s a price those of us in countries far away, without any familial links to the countries involved, are likely to never pay. Outsiders are, by definition, outsiders; they can never respect those sacrifices to the same extent that insiders will bear them. But outsiders can—and should—try. That means never privileging outsiders’ analysis over insiders’—which, alas, often happens.
The BBC’s and the New York Times’ publication this week of off-the-record comments made by Khashoggi before his disappearance reflects outsiders deciding that they can override the desire of a journalist from an autocratic country to keep a conversation private. But this is not an isolated occurrence; it happens, and not all that rarely. And if we’re really serious about admiring these journalists, we should respect them—not simply as sources who add credence to our stories and research, but as people who take risks that we will never pay the price for.
Khashoggi is not a revolutionary or even an opposition figure. On the contrary, he made it clear he was a loyal critic—even if many in Saudi Arabia didn’t think so. Moreover, he had extensive connections with powerful elites around the world, in political life as well as the media. Khashoggi’s connections obviously did not stop whatever happened to him from taking place. But they did mean that attention was given to him once it did. I’m glad about that, because no one deserves to be detained without due process, let alone worse.
But as we rightly and correctly demand accountability for what has happened to Khashoggi, we need to remember as well: What about all of those who do not have those connections—and are even more critical of autocrats from their own countries?
And that applies in all of the countries that are part of this story—Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, or elsewhere—even if the unjust detentions take place for different reasons and under different formats. Which is the final point that we need to remember when we consider this horrid episode: partisanship. There are many who are focused on this case because they’re politically opposed to Saudi Arabia—but wouldn’t say anything about, for example, unjust detentions in Turkey, Iran, or any number of states. There are many who are spreading nonsensical rumors about Turkey simply in order to deflect responsibility and accountability away from Saudi Arabia, with whom they have vested interests. And the list goes on. None of this helps; it only makes true accountability that much more difficult to apply.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had online armies of trolls (anonymous and otherwise) claim I am pro-Erdogan, anti-Erdogan, pro-Saudi, anti-Saudi, pro-UAE, anti-UAE, pro-Sisi, anti-Sisi—and sometimes even on the same day, in response to the same article. The truth is that I support fundamental rights, but disinformation campaigns like these—and I am not the only one who is targeted by them—are purely designed to delegitimize genuine critique, rather than to serve any noble goal.
I’m not like the heroes who work daily in authoritarian regimes, but I’ve lived through my share of difficulties and run-ins with autocrats. I’m not immune or invulnerable—no one is—but unlike many journalists, I have connections and links to powerful institutions and political forces and access to prominent platforms. Not everyone does. There are local researchers in or from autocratic states who do not have access to international media outlets, writers and activists who cannot count on interventions by powerful elites in different countries. They might be Saudi; they might be Turkish or Russian or Chinese; or today they might be in Hungary or even the United States. We need to admire them, we need to respect them, and we need to take their security—and their insights—deeply seriously.
We need to remember these people’s humanity. They’re not just symbols to be used to advance an argument or enhance an article but real people, who have justifiable concerns about their safety and the safety of their friends and family. If we’re sincere about admiring people who take risks like they do, we should respect those concerns.