Saturday, the 20th of October

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Talking points

Vladislav Roslyakov stalks his college. PHOTO: AP
  1. A bullied student gunned down 20 classmates in Russian-annexed Crimea
  2. Angela Merkel's coalition partners were rolled in the Bavarian election
  3. Eurozone leaders trashed the Italian government's budget plan
  4. Julian Assange was told to take care of his cat and stop arguing online
  5. Hindu-fundamentalists blockaded a temple in India after the Supreme Court ruled that women could pray there
  6. Also in India, the #MeToo movement claimed a cabinet member's scalp
  7. Canada became the largest western nation to legalise marijuana 
  8. The 132-year-old Sears was finally cut down by competition from internet retailers
  9. Microsoft's enterprising co-founder Paul Allen died aged 65
  10. With the civil war largely over, Jordan reopened its border with Syria

Deep Dive

The man in the sly castle. PHOTO: Cliff Owen / AP
Journalism is a hazardous profession. An obvious hazard of truth-telling for a living is that one doesn't make a lot of friends in the process. A less obvious hazard is that speaking truth to power can sometimes place one in real peril. In fact, 65 journalists were killed last year. And that toll will likely be eclipsed in 2018. Usually (and tragically) journalists' deaths attract little notice beyond the fast-disappearing news cycle. But Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance has been different. It has provoked reactions and interest around the world - why?

A fatal admission
Late in the week - and after a lengthy consultation with Washington on an appropriate excuse - Saudi Arabian authorities admitted to killing the Washington Post columnist. It's alleged that Khashoggi was killed during a fight; an explanation that is unlikely to provide catharsis after this gripping and sordid affair.

The slight uncertainty that lingers over Khashoggi's disappearance has certainly not deterred the international community from reaching an evident conclusion - that he was assassinated at the instruction of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The media continues to hammer Saudi Arabia for the presumed transgression. And even Salman's most effusive Western advocates have quietly conceded that the scandal has tarnished him. Indeed, the prince's pet project - the Future Investment Initiative conference - has been abandoned by Western business leaders and politicians. 

Cruel and unusual punishment
Two factors have contributed to this case taking hold of public consciousness. Firstly, the crime itself was unbelievably brazen and cruel. Most repressive regimes are content to simply gun down their vocal critics in the street - but not Saudi Arabia. If Turkey's surveillance tapes are to be believed (and even US President Donald Trump now appears convinced they are) then the killing was preceded by torture. Khashoggi's fingers were severed during his interrogation. The columnist paid a galling price for his probity: his digits, and then his head.

It's a gruesome tale. But even so, journalists die at a rate of more than one a week, and often in bloody fashion. Which leads us to the second reason why this story has blown up: Khashoggi's most-recent employer was the Washington Post. The Post has grown in stature in recent years (not least because of its coverage of US politics), and the murder of one of its contributors has resonated strongly throughout the industry. The bold motto on the Post, 'Democracy Dies in Darkness' now conveys a darker sentiment as well. Take the time and read Khashoggi's final column

Business as usual
While the brazenness and vengefulness of Kashoggi's murder might set it apart, it is similar to other attacks on journalists in one important way: the person who gave the order for it will not be held to account. The early excuses from Riyadh (accidental death, rogue killers) were utterly lacking in credibility. But even so, many US politicians (particularly Republicans) seemed happy to parrot Saudi talking points. Some even went so far as to smear Khashoggi's name. Then, late in the week, leaks from the kingdom suggested that the royal palace had found itself a scapegoat - intelligence boss General Ahmed al-Assiri. Again, this seems an attempt to insulate the royal family from blame - and it should fool no-one since MbS's own bodyguards had been dispatched on the mission. But justice for Khashoggi is highly unlikely. The expectation is that international political and business interests will trump retribution of any sort, and that the status quo will be preserved.  

The heads of Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 companies may have chosen to preserve their political capital by not attending a trade junket hosted by a murderous crown prince. But state relations are a different matter altogether. Earlier in the week the US president laid out the issue in stark terms: upbraiding Riyadh could endanger $100b in arms sales. You don't have to subscribe to a realpolitik worldview to guess what happens next.

Crime and disillusionment
This week also marked the one year anniversary of Daphne Caruana Galizia's assassination. For three decades she had been a fearless and fearsome journalist who named and shamed corrupt Maltese politicians; in the end she was silenced in the only way she could be - with a car-bomb. A year on, her final written words are still deeply unnerving, "there are crooks everywhere, the situation is desperate". And yet, neither those words not her death have been the clarion call that her grieving family had hoped for. As we noted at the outset, those who expose graft and nepotism rarely have friends in high places. And so there has been no progress in the investigation, and Galizia's son alleges a conspiracy to cover up his mother's murder. 

In the intervening year since that car-bomb dozens more reporters have been killed. They've disappeared while covering corrupt officials. They've died in bomb blasts. They've been shot while at their desks. And executed while far from home. They all deserve to be remembered. As does Jamal Khashoggi.

Editor's note: As heinous as this act was, it is of note that the murder of one American journalist has drawn more robust criticism of Riyadh than, for example, the brutal Saudi air war which has claimed thousands of Yemeni lives - or the artificial famine that has endangered millions more.


How do you get into Harvard? PHOTO: Bloomberg

Affirmative (legal) action
Harvard University is on the banks of the river Charles, but in a less literal sense it stands at the confluence of two streams: academic excellence and social elitism. Its continued power (and eye-watering endowment) is a result of being both the teacher and the symbol for America's uppermost class.

In the decades since America's Civil Rights Movement, lawmakers have tried to level the playing field and to open the door for African Americans through 'affirmative action'. This week Harvard went to court in a legal battle that may well determine the future of affirmative action.

A group of Asian-American students (funded by the conservative litigator Edward Blum) have brought suit against their university on grounds of racial discrimination. The cut-and-thrust of their argument is that affirmative action swayed Harvard's admissions policy by lowering the bar for African-American students. This, they argued, placed higher-achieving Asian-American students at a disadvantage.

Harvard's somewhat grandiloquent motto reads, 'veritas', but that has not deterred its lawyers from being as vague as legally possible. They've hinted that the case against them is a stalking horse for a broader conservative attack upon affirmative action. It's widely understood that the current case in Boston will be referred to the Supreme Court, regardless of the result

An (illusory) air of invincibility. PHOTO: Reuters
Taliban waxing
Being police chief of Kandahar - the birthplace of the Taliban - is a fraught career choice. Regular assassination attempts are de rigueur. But General Abdul Raziq relished the role, wielding draconian power regularly and harshly. The man described as Kandahar's "torturer-in-chief" had earned his reputation with his wildly inhumane approach to dealing with prisoners - he favoured crushing the testicles of captured Taliban fighters.

On Thursday he was gunned down along with his intelligence chief, when one of his bodyguards turned on him after a meeting. Kandahar's governor and a handful of American troops were also wounded, while the ranking US officer in Afghanistan escaped narrowly.

And yet, peace negotiations must continue. Afghans go to the polls today to vote in the presidential election. They do so under a cloud of uncertainty that will remain as long as a political solution is out of reach.

The Best Of Times...

The best of the best. PHOTO: Frank Augstein / Reuters

The (Wo)Man Booker
This year's prestigious Man Booker Prize in fiction has gone to the Northern Irish author Anna Burns. Her third novel, Milkman, is a tale of a young woman growing up during the Troubles. The prize panel said, "None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns' utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humor."  

Little blue pills
A study of men in Sydney, Australia has found that a new anti-HIV drug is responsible for an unprecedented drop in the rate of new cases. The drug, Gilead Science Inc's Truvada, is responsible for a 30% reduction over 12 months. This is the first time that the treatment known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) has been measured on a large population. The results are wonderfully heartening.

The Worst Of Times...

Desperate measures. PHOTO: The Independent

Disinfectant from above
The rescue operation in Palu, Indonesia ended a week ago but authorities estimate thousands of bodies still lie beneath the rubble. The tropical heat is decomposing these bodies, attracting flies and mice which can spread serious infectious diseases. Emergency workers have resorted to dropping disinfectant from helicopters to halt the spread of such diseases. Meanwhile the ghastly, necessary work of cleaning up continues.

What's in a name?
The Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in India, Yogi Adityanath, has struck another blow in the name of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva). This week Adityanath's cabinet renamed the city of Allahabad to the Hindu-connoting Prayagraj. Proponents of Hindutva have long wished to wash away the lingering presence of the islamic Mughal empire. And three-centuries-old aggression by the invading Mughals is often used to justify the present-day persecution of India's large Muslim population. 

Weekend Reading

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Tom Wharton
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