Martin Smith: Administration's 'Hostile Stance' Putting Journalists At Risk

Oct 5, 2019

Journalist Martin Smith at Maine Public's Portland studios Oct. 3, 2019.
Credit Irwin Gratz / Maine Public

Journalist Martin Smith is no stranger to Saudi Arabia or its key players. He had interviewed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and met with Jamal Khashoggi several times. After Khashoggi was killed a year ago, and the crown prince implicated in the act, Smith and the PBS program Frontline decided it was time to take a closer look at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Smith will talk about all this Friday at Colby College. He told Maine Public’s Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz Thursday that the crown prince – MBS as he’s known - is a complex figure.

SMITH: Well, I think it's correct that he is a reformer, but that shouldn't be confused - in other words, he's interested in economic reform, he's interested in some social reforms in order, for instance, to bring women into the workforce. But what he's not interested in is political reform that would give people a voice. He's not interested in a free press. He's not interested in people's right to self-determination. And I think in the West a lot of people had great hopes for him. And when they saw that he was a reformer, an economic reformer, they confused that with this idea that he would be something of a Democrat, if you could imagine such a thing in a in a monarchy.

GRATZ: You know, I just thought about this, but there's a parallel here, is there not, with what we're seeing in China today?

There is a parallel with China, and that's very much a model for him, I believe. The problem is that China has a huge, industrious, hardworking workforce, and they've become the shop floor, as we all know, to the world. So many goods are manufactured there. Saudi Arabians, by and large, haven't really learned what it is to work. There is an elite at the very top. But after that you've got massive unemployment. And people have become accustomed to, with great wealth, hiring people from outside the country, whether it's Pakistanis or Bangladeshis or Filipinos, to come in and do their work. And, interestingly, when I met Jamal Khashoggi a couple of times ago - back in 2016, I believe it was - I asked him what he was doing, and he said he was getting ready to write a book on how Saudis didn't understand the value of work.

Your documentary talks about how, increasingly, Saudi Arabia began to reach out for its expatriates, who were, in some ways, dissenting from the government. Did Khashoggi realize how much mortal danger he was in?

He certainly did not seem to realize that he was in mortal danger. And there is – and we probably undercooked this in this documentary - because there's many examples of people being kidnapped or forcibly removed from other countries and brought back to Saudi Arabia. In the last year there's been, I think, at least four that we know of, and one of those people is missing. And, so, Jamal would – should - have known that he was at some risk, but, I think, especially going into the consulate building in Istanbul. So, unfortunately, he made that decision to go in there and he did it out of love. He did it because he wanted marriage papers for him and his fiancée.

Has the international outrage that has followed Khashoggi’s death had any impact on MBS, that you can tell?

I think he thought this was going to blow over. But I think what's happened instead, to some degree - perhaps not enough - is that the murder and dismemberment and the whole gruesomeness of this all has opened a window on Saudi Arabia. And people have been able to look a little harder at what's going on there, and the fact that women's rights activists, poets, academics, authors of various kinds have been in prison and swept up in purges, starting, really, with his ascendance as the crown prince in early 2017. So, Khashoggi allowed people to take a harder look. Somehow, we all kind of woke up and said wait a minute.

Now, of course, you're here to be part of Colby's convocation regarding journalists and the dangers that journalists have been facing around the world. What's your message to people like you who continue to do what you do?

Well it's our jobs to ask hard questions of people in power, it's our jobs to go to places that other people might be hesitant to go to and cover them. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria have all been my beats. And it's - you know, I'm not going to say that it's safe, but it's part of the job. And there are a lot of people in other countries who face far graver dangers than I do as an American. And my hat's off to those people, and many of them have lost their lives. Increasingly the U.S. administration has decided to take a hostile stance towards reporters, and this emanates out from the U.S., and it emboldens people such as dictators and other countries - Duerte, or wherever - Putin. So there is an open sort of season on journalists now, and that's unfortunate. As an American journalist I'm much safer for the most part, even though some Americans have lost their lives doing their work. But my sympathies go out to those people who are in countries that are oppressive and take enormous risks as journalists.

Thank you sir for the time we appreciate it.

Irwin thank you for having me.

Colby College today will present its Lovejoy Award in the name of Khashoggi and other journalists killed last year. The award is named for Elijah Lovejoy, a Colby alumni killed defending his press from a pro-slavery mob.  

Originally published 9:15 a.m. Oct. 5, 2019