Leaks, misinformation complicate search for answers in Khashoggi disappearance

With few details being offically made public, anonymous sources and social media have filled the gap

A man speaks on the phone outside the Saudi Arabia's consulate in Istanbul, Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. Turkish officials have an audio recording of the alleged killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi from the Apple Watch he wore when he walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul over a week ago, a pro-government Turkish newspaper reported Saturday. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)
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Coming up to two weeks since Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after going to Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, a picture is emerging of what may have been his final moments – but it is one largely built upon leaks, supposition and unnamed sources.

"We need to know exactly what has happened and we need to know exactly who is responsible and, of course, when we see the multiplication of this kind of situation I think we need to find ways in which accountability is also demanded," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the BBC over the weekend.

Indeed, one of the most challenging issues with the aftermath of the disappearance of the Saudi insider turned self-exiled critic is that very little information has come from Turkish officials speaking openly to the media in a public forum.

Behind the scenes, unnamed Turkish sources, intelligence officials and foreign diplomats have been briefing non-stop, filling the near vacuum of official comment.

While many large outlets have long track records of thorough reporting and internal checks to prevent manipulation or fabrication, others do not. Dealing with the volume of information being published and the volume attributed to anonymous sources means it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish fact from fiction.

So far what we know, based on official statements and surveillance evidence, is that Mr Khashoggi arrived at the consulate at around 1 p.m. on October 2. We know that a woman who was previously unknown to family members but says she is his fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, waited outside and sounded the alarm when he did not return. We also know that days after his disappearance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he hoped for a positive outcome from the investigation.


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However, Mr Erdogan’s senior advisor, Yasin Aktay, had already briefed the press saying authorities believed Mr Khashoggi had been killed.

Since then, a stream of information has been leaked and, in the absence of new details, the same information has started to bounce off newspapers reporting each other’s latest line.

Most recently, the investigation has reportedly cantered around an Apple watch that Mr Khashoggi was said to be wearing when he entered the consulate. Details were leaked to Turkish newspaper Sabah that Mr Khashoggi had turned on an audio recording function and that this clip was in the hands of investigators.

This was widely picked up until the likes of CNN, who spoke to experts, dismissed the claims as unlikely given that technical constraints would make this almost impossible without him logging into the consulate’s Wi-Fi system – a move they say would itself be highly unlikely.

Many media outlets then moved on to the next detail.

Turkish media, including state-run Anadolu news agency, have reported details of 15 men it says are connected with Mr Khashoggi’s disappearance and flew in from Riyadh ahead of the journalist’s arrival at the consulate. However, Saudi media have dismissed the reports saying that the men were tourists and the image showing Salah Muhammed Al Tubaiqi, listed as the head of forensic medicine at the Interior Ministry by an official Saudi website, were from when he visited the country on holiday with his wife. No official corroboration of the identities of the 15 men has been possible.

The official investigation has not yet commented on their identities. In the absence, social media has stepped in. From doctored photos to claims of details on an alleged killing have been pushed out on social media and either widely shared or debunked.

Even details of the investigation itself are being reported anonymously. Reuters quoted several anonymous sources saying that a delegation from Saudi Arabia has arrived in Turkey to form a joint investigation into the disappearance. The state-run Saudi Press Agency later quoted a Saudi official as welcoming Turkey’s approval of its request to form the team.

None of the information came initially in an official statement from the Turkish or Saudi government until the Turkish Foreign Minister later publically said that his government will share information as part of the joint investigation.

Ankara has said that a search of the consulate had been agreed with Riyadh but added that this has yet to materialise.

"We still have not seen cooperation in order to ensure a smooth investigation and bring everything to light. We want to see this," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said over the weekend.

Interior Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Saud bin Naif bin Abdulaziz, meanwhile, said the kingdom was also keen to uncover "the whole truth", but added that allegations it had issued orders to kill Mr Khashoggi were "baseless".

Indeed, even Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told Bloomberg News last week that his government was "very keen to know what happened", and that the journalist had left the consulate "after a few minutes or one hour".

However, international pressure has been mounting in recent days, especially in the absence of evidence that supports the argument that Mr Khashoggi left the Saudi consulate.