The editor of the Independent has flown to Riyadh to meet with the news outlet’s controversial new Saudi publishing partner despite growing concerns over its links to the country following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.
Christian Broughton’s trip comes as a number of media organisations boycott a major Riyadh investment conference. It was said to be a long-planned meeting with the representatives of the newspaper’s new partner, the Saudi Research and Marketing Group (SRMG) – a publishing business with close ties to the Saudi royal family.
But a spokesperson would not comment on suggestions that Broughton would also be attending the Future Investment Initiative conference – also known as “Davos in the desert” – while he is in the country.
Broughton’s visit follows a deal the Independent signed earlier this year, which will see the British publication licence its brand to SRMG. SRMG intends to launch a series of sites, which it will own and operate, under the Independent’s name across the Middle East by the end of this year.
Staff at the Independent, who have covered Khashoggi’s murder in depth, expressed concern about what they viewed as the secretive nature of Broughton’s trip to Riyadh and the fact that it coincides with the controversial conference. There is also uncertainty over the editorial oversight of the spin-off foreign language websites. A union chapel meeting is to be held on Friday night to discuss questions raised about their editorial independence from the Saudi
Although the new websites will be Independent-branded, the content is set to be be almost entirely produced by SRMG journalists based in London, Islamabad, Istanbul and New York. The sites, which will operate in Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Persian, will be “supported by operations staff in Riyadh and Dubai”.
The publisher has strong links to the Saudi state. Until recently, SRMG’s chairman was Prince Bader bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud, who quit to take up a position as Saudi minister of culture.
While journalists from outlets including the Independent and the Guardian are attending the Future Investment Initiative in a reporting capacity, many media executives have boycotted Saudi events, including the conference, since Khashoggi’s disappearance.
The editor of the Economist, Zanny Minton Beddoes, was due to attend the event, but earlier this month a spokesperson said she would no longer be going. The New York Times also decided to cancel its sponsorship of the event. Others no longer attending include Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of the Los Angeles Times.
Khashoggi was found dead earlier in the month and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has publicly torn down Saudi claims that the dissident journalist died in a fight in its Istanbul consulate. He made fresh allegations that his “savage” murder was premeditated and calling for an independent investigation in Turkey.
The Independent has previously said that despite SRMG’s operational control of the new foreign language sites, they would conform to “the standards, codes and ethos of the Independent” and bring its journalism to millions more readers “in regions that need greater media plurality”.