CNN Anchor Criticized for Participating in Saudi Investment Conference

Image courtesy of the FII Institute/YouTube

Last Wednesday marked the first day of the Future Investment Initiative, a high profile investment conference based in Riyadh that was held this year in a hybrid format, partially virtual and partially in-person. Some of Wall Street’s most prominent executives were listed as participants in the two-day forum focused on reimagining the global economy during the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the participants was CNN anchor Erin Burnett, who joined the conference virtually to interview Morgan Stanley CEO James Gorman. Burnett’s participation in the Saudi conference, which was first reported by the New York Times, garnered significant backlash from members of the news media considering the regime’s abysmal human rights record. 

Reporters pointed to the brutal murder of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, who had written critically of the Saudi government and was forced to flee Saudi Arabia a year before he was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. 

Laila Al-Arian, the executive producer of the Al Jazeera documentary series “Fault Lines” called Burnett’s participation “disappointing” and recalled observing a moment of silence for Khashoggi at a vigil held on the one-year anniversary of his death.

“America’s corporate journalists are so instinctively meek and deferential that they’ll eagerly burnish the reputations of criminals who literally murder journalists,” tweeted Jon Schwarz, a writer at The Intercept.

A spokesperson for CNN did not return a request for comment.

In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, the Committee to Protect Journalists launched its ‘Justice for Jamal’ campaign, a multi-faceted advocacy effort which included pressing the private sector to discontinue “business as usual with Saudi Arabia until there is justice for Jamal.”

In an interview, Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, called the investment conference an exercise in “propaganda” intended to rehabilitate the Saudi government’s image.

“This is no different than all the propaganda conferences that the crowned prince has organized since three years ago to try to wash his hands out of the murder of Khashoggi and to reestablish his false claim as a reformer running the kingdom,” Mansour said. “Like any of those conferences, I think there is no room big enough to contain the enormous elephant of the room which is Khashoggi.”

While Mansour did not directly comment on Burnett’s participation in the conference, he emphasized the importance of placing Khashoggi’s case at the front of the Biden administration’s diplomatic agenda.

He said the lack of punishment for Khashoggi’s killing showed the “impunity and lack of accountability” that accompanies the cases of most slain journalists.

“For the first time there was a case that shocked the human imagination. The name Khashoggi is the most difficult for non-Arabs to pronounce yet you would probably recognize the name in every language,” Mansour said.

Albert Lewitinn, a former executive producer for several programs at CNN between 2004 and 2010, said Burnett’s participation would only be ethically or journalistically wrong depending on the context.

“The only way it would be ethically wrong is if there is a public statement that absolves the Saudi Arabian government in the murder of Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabian officials,” Lewittinn said.

He also drew a distinction between the roles of journalists and legal or government authorities. “Journalists are not supposed to prosecute crimes that may have occurred, it’s up to authorities. Journalists tell the story,” he said.

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