Sunday, June 23, 2024

Jamal Khashoggi and Hopewell Chin’ono in the ‘Kingdom of Silence’

This past month, the world commemorated the second anniversary of the alleged brutal murder on October 2 of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist and outspoken critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Khashoggi was allegedly killed and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. As a fitting tribute to the slain journalist, two new movies have been released:

“Kingdom of Silence” and “The Dissident” which critics say, “aim to amplify his story further, shedding light on lesser-known details and serving as a call to action.” On the fateful day, Khashoggi entered the Saudi Consulate in Turkey to finalise his papers for his pending marriage, he was never seen alive again.

Khashoggi’s sordid tale mirrors what is happening in a country next door to Botswana to the north, in Zimbabwe to be specific. There, an outspoken journalist and chronicler of corruption, Hopewell Chin’ono has been equally hounded for his writing; equally so for his work online, just like Jamal Khashoggi. During the same month that the world remembered Khashoggi, Hopewell was being hunted, for the second time, like prey, for what the authorities say was a breach of his bail conditions. Chin’ono, a respected documentary-maker who has worked for a number of international organisations, was first arrested in July after publishing a series of investigations into corruption in Zimbabwe.

According to critics of Kingdom of Silence, “The movie chronicles the final years of Khashoggi’s life from the perspective of Omar Abdulaziz, a young Saudi activist in Montreal and friend of Khashoggi’s who, like the journalist, fled Saudi Arabia, criticized its rulers and has had to pay for it. And Chin’ono like, like Jamal Khashoggi is in prison this time for using social media. The new arrest is thought to have been prompted by a tweet sent a few days earlier suggesting the chief justice Luke Malaba, had intervened to deny Chin’ono bail. On his release, Chin’ono was effectively banned from using social media for anything that could be seen as critical of the ruling Zanu-PF government. The arrest was part of a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent in Zimbabwe, during which between 50 and 100 opposition party officials, writers, labour activists and others arrested.  The comparison between Jamal and Hopewell might seem far-fetched but the two equally have an almost identical CV of working for internationally renowned media houses. At the time of his death, Jamal Khashoggi was writing for the Washington Post.

While Hopewell has done work for similar media houses including ironically, Aljazeera which is based in Saudi Arabia, and other UK based media houses. The US embassy in Harare said the arrest of the respected documentary-maker was worrying. “Reports that authorities have again arrested @daddyhope for speaking out against corruption and defending fundamental freedoms raise serious concerns,” the embassy said on Twitter. The US, UK, EU and others condemned the wave of repression in July. A local clergy also published a scathing open letter accusing the country’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, and his government of abuse of power.As it stands, Chin’ono faces a lengthy prison sentence for his crimes, according to the Zimbabwean media. The initial charges against him were based on a series of tweets he sent to encourage attendance at an opposition rally that was due to take place on 31 July. The authorities banned the protest, citing Covid-19 regulations, and deployed the army and riot police to disperse any demonstrators.

 Last January, the United Nations accused Prince Mohammed of hacking the cellphone of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and the owner of The Washington Post, potentially as an attempt to influence the outlet’s critical coverage of the kingdom.  “If they can use this technology to go after the richest man in the world and shame him, who can they not go after?” he asked. “Who is not safe?”In the other short film released the same time as Kingdom of Silence, “The Dissident,” the director Bryan Fogel says “Surveillance is a key story line in “The Dissident.” Fogel is also the director of the Oscar-winning 2017 documentary on the Russian doping scandal “Icarus.” The Dissident is slated for a theatrical release on Dec. 18. It chronicles the final years of Khashoggi’s life from the perspective of Omar Abdulaziz.“Their stories progressively intertwine, particularly as the film looks at the kingdom’s cyberoperations.

Both Khashoggi and Abdulaziz were targeted for their online rhetoric, and Abdulaziz has said that the royal court hacked his smartphone using the same software that has been used to spy on journalists and activists.”Chin’ono, like the two above has been monitored and arrested on charges related to his online work. Khashoggi’s case is still making headlines. Saudi Arabia issued final verdicts in September; Turkish prosecutors filed a second indictment against six suspects; and a human-rights watchdog organization that was the brainchild of Khashoggi was just unveiled in Washington. The detention of Chin’ono, an award-winning investigative journalist, became a symbol of a return to oppression amid rising unrest over corruption and an economic meltdown in the southern African nation. Chin’ono still faces trial. Since March the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association, an NGO, has documented more than 800 alleged human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, scores of assaults by security agents, and 20 attacks on journalists.

South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa, the African Union commission, and church groups have added to international pressure on President Mnangagwa over the repression. After his initial release Chin’ono had a harrowing tale to tell about the state of prisons there.  “When they took me to Chikurubi, I then realised to what extent they wanted to inflict as much pain as they could pre-trial,” he said. The squalid conditions included being held for up to 17 hours a day in a cell that was designed for 16 but held 43. Prison conditions also validated his reports that looting had left the state bereft of Covid-19 supplies, he said. The prison hospital was out of paracetamol and prisoners suspected of being infected with coronavirus were given only warm water to drink. “There I was having a front-row seat to the consequences of what I was writing about,” said Chin’ono. “All this comes down to one thing, refusal to stop corruption and looting of public funds.”

“I do not understand what you mean when you say that what I posted obstructs justice delivery; what you are trying to tell me is that journalism obstructs justice which in my view is not correct,” said the defiant journalist. As he mazes down the ‘boulevard of broken journalistic dreams,’ in Harare, the larger fear among fellow media practitioners and the wider world alike is that one day Hopewell Chin’ono will enter the dungeons of a Zimbabwean jail, and like Jamal Khashoggi, never come back again. Hopewell, like Jamal might not be in the movies yet but one common factor between the two scribes is each has his own Kingdom of Silence, where to speak against malfeasance, is a cardinal sin.

*John Churu is a Journalist and Social Commentator and can be contacted on [email protected]

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