Sacha Pfeiffer speaks with director Bryan Fogel about his new film, The Dissident, which chronicles the life and death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:
Few political murders have attracted the attention that the death of Jamal Khashoggi did. He was the Saudi Arabian journalist working as a Washington Post columnist and living in self-exile. Two years ago, he was filmed by security cameras entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul but never seen leaving. The Saudi government eventually admitted that Khashoggi had been killed by its security forces, and the details were horrific.
Now there's a documentary with the pacing of a thriller about why he was murdered. Earlier this week, I spoke with the film's maker, Bryan Fogel. We started by talking about Khashoggi's complicated relationship with the Saudi royal family. For years, Khashoggi was close to the monarchy. He was even an adviser to the Saudi government. But when Mohammed bin Salman was elevated to crown prince in 2017, Khashoggi became a vocal critic.
BRYAN FOGEL: The way that I've best come to understand it is as Mohammed bin Salman takes power, he's being essentially presented as this great reformer in the West. He's going to bring Saudi into the future, and he's going to open up the country to tourism and women's rights and make it, you know, a far more moderate country. And so this is happening on the outside. On the inside, Mohammed bin Salman is literally cracking down upon members of the family, businessmen, literally rounding up any of his opponents, torturing them and shaking them down for money to gain absolute power. And this actually happens to Jamal Khashoggi, and he's basically told to shut up. And what's going on around Jamal is his friends are being arrested. And Jamal essentially realizes that if he's going to stay in Saudi, he is either going to be silenced or, if he speaks anything, he's going to be arrested.
PFEIFFER: A large part of the movie is devoted to how much online surveillance and online manipulation happens in Saudi Arabia. That's partially because so much of that population is on Twitter. Can you explain the ways that Jamal Khashoggi was complicating the efforts of the royal family to try to control the online message the population was getting?
FOGEL: Well, I think this is one of the major reasons why he was ultimately murdered. And this was a real concern to the old guard in that region, especially the Saudis and the Emirates that really had a hold on power. And what they realized was that if you could essentially control the public sphere on Twitter, that you could control the narrative and in controlling the narrative, essentially quash freedom of speech, stop protests and essentially protect your monarchy.
So Saudi Arabia starts implementing a policy where they begin to hire hundreds and ultimately thousands of people and call them Twitter trolls, I guess is the best word for it. And what this means is if Jamal Khashoggi was sending out a tweet saying, I disagree with MBS on such and such - right? - the very next thing - his Twitter feed is flooded with hundreds and hundreds of comments. You're a traitor. You're not a real Saudi. You have no idea what you're talking about. And so Jamal's voice was lost as well as anybody dissenting against MBS. And the Saudi narrative is what is trending on Twitter.
PFEIFFER: It actually surprises me that the Saudi government, the royal family - so wealthy, so powerful - wouldn't be thicker-skinned about Jamal Khashoggi and his criticism. I mean, why did they consider him such a threat that they would have needed to kill him?
FOGEL: If you go and read his Washington Post opinion articles or if you go read books that he published in the last years of his life in Arabic that have been translated, this guy was not, you know, on the left. He was in the middle. And what he was saying is, I love my country. But at the same time, if you're going to be a reformer, you can't also be locking up women's human rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul, or you can't be locking up economists like Essam al-Zamel who disagrees with you wanting to bring Saudi Aramco public. And so what Jamal was basically saying over and over again is you need to let in other voices.
PFEIFFER: Bryan, the most difficult, disturbing parts of this movie are how Jamal Khashoggi died, actually audio recordings that capture the sounds of him dying - gruesome. And it was so gruesome that many elected officials spoke out against this. Here's a clip of Senator Rand Paul asking why the U.S. didn't crack down more on Saudi Arabia after this murder.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
RAND PAUL: Are we so blind to the malign influence of Saudi Arabia that we just give money and weapons to anybody, regardless of what they do? You can cut a dissident into pieces with a bone saw, and we'll still give you weapons.
PFEIFFER: Even with people like Rand Paul speaking out in that way, do you feel like it's made any difference? I mean, President Trump appears to still be a big supporter of the crown prince in Saudi Arabia. We still sell the kingdom a lot of weapons. Has it mattered? Has Jamal Khashoggi's killing mattered in terms of the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?
FOGEL: To date, it has not mattered, I mean, nor has it mattered to, you know, almost any member of the G-20. What you have is a lot of essentially talking heads and hot air without any action. I mean, you know, you've seen the same thing, you know, in regards to Russia and Putin. You know, everybody is appalled that Navalny was poisoned by Novichok. But is anybody or any country or company really taking action or doing anything about this? So we're seeing this pattern repeat itself, that, you know, there's a lot of, you know, slapping on the wrist, but there isn't really anything in the form of true punishment, sanctions, you know, or other meaningful action.
PFEIFFER: There's a line in the movie that says in Saudi Arabia, having an opinion is a crime, but Jamal's death changed everything. But did it, though? Do you really think it changed anything, let alone everything?
FOGEL: Well, it did one thing. It hasn't changed ultimately what is happening in the kingdom and the crackdown on dissent and the jailing of, you know, thousands of essentially political prisoners. But I think it opened up the world's eyes that MBS is not the great reformer that he appears to be.
PFEIFFER: That's Bryan Fogel. His new film "The Dissident" is now in theaters and will be available on demand January 8. Bryan, thanks for talking with us.
FOGEL: Thank you so much for having me, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.