On a warm evening in April 2020, an image of Al Jazeera anchor Ghada Oueiss nude in a hot tub lit up the internet. It was captured in the private residence of the network’s Chairman, Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad Bin Thamer Al Thani, claimed the caption. The Arabic hashtag ‘Ghada jacuzzi’ was trending in Saudi Arabia.
Only the image was not as it first appeared. It had been stolen from Ghada’s phone and doctored to make her look like she had no clothes on. “No wonder she’s naked,” wrote one of the trolls who went by the name Saoud Bin Abdulaziz Algharibi. “She’s a cheap Christian. She’s old and ugly.”
When Ghada opened Algharibi’s timeline she saw an avalanche of tweets eulogising the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman. There were tens and thousands of retweets and comments from accounts littered with images of MBS, the Saudi flag, and shots of the UAE Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed.
For Ghada, the goal of the attack was clear – to intimidate and silence journalists like herself who speak uncomfortable truths about repressive regimes. “These attacks sought to impugn my reputation by using doctored images that were stolen from my phone,” she says. “In my case, the vicious online attacks centred around the fact that I am a woman and a Christian.”
Eight months later, Ghada filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Florida against MBS, MBZ, and several other Saudi and UAE officials and American citizens, stating that her phone was hacked using Israeli spyware to access personal photos stored on it. She was targeted due to her critical coverage of human rights abuses in the Gulf states, outlined in the lawsuit. A campaign had been orchestrated to damage her character and career.
“It is hard to describe how one’s life can change overnight for simply doing your job and reporting the truth,” Ghada says. “Mine and my husband’s life will never be the same again, we live in fear and feel we are constantly attacked and watched. We hardly leave the house and almost never talk about personal issues on the phone anymore.”
“My mother, who lost my late father only a short few months before the attack, feels constant threat for her and my sister and brothers’ lives,” she continues.
My sister recently lost her job in the UAE for simply being my sister, and my late father and mother’s names are always brought into shame and attacked on social media.
“My family’s life will never be the same again, particularly now knowing that we are never safe from tyrant regimes in our region that have shown no restraint in going after those who would challenge them.”
Oueiss has reported on the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 in what became a shocking example of the lengths the Saudi regime will go to silence its critics. Yet despite the attacks on her family and Khashoggi’s murder, Ghada says she will continue to shed light on abuses of power: “We must speak the truth,” she says, “Even when it’s difficult.”
“The hacking of my phone and subsequent attacks and threats shook me to my core,” says Ghada. “I’m reminded of Loujain Al-Hathloul, the young Saudi women’s rights activist languishing in one of the kingdom’s jails, and of my dear friend Jamal, whose body has not been found till this day, and I know that I cannot let them win. I cannot let them silence me.”
Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul is set to be released on Thursday after more than 1,000 days in prison. In detention, Loujain was singled out for particularly harsh abuse. She was kept in solitary confinement, tortured and threatened with rape because she called for equal rights for women in the kingdom, including that they be allowed to drive.
“Saudi Arabia is an authoritarian regime that has based its rule – and the deal it made with extremists to stay in power – on the suppression of women,” comments Ghada. “MBS and the other leaders there know that by lifting the restraints on women, they will unleash a political force they won’t be able to control. They do not want to be held accountable to their female population.”
Since Ghada filed her lawsuit, the political landscape in the region has shifted. In January, Saudi Arabia announced it was lifting the blockade on Qatar, where Al Jazeera is based, and that Egypt, Bahrain, and the UAE were also resuming ties with Doha after they imposed a travel, diplomatic, and trade boycott in 2017.
For years, the quartet has demanded that Al Jazeera and affiliate stations be closed after their coverage of the Arab Spring protests rattled the ruling regimes. Egypt claims the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs says it would change the direction of the network. Ghada says that’s simply not true.
“Arab regimes and particularly those of Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been putting pressure on Al Jazeera since the day the network launched back in 1996. They’ve arrested and imprisoned my colleagues, raided and shut our offices, and mobilised an army of bots to attack and cyberbully my fellow journalists and me. I’d describe that as a little bit more than just pressure,” she says.
“Yet despite all of this aggression, which has gone on for years, the network has stuck true to its professional journalistic principles: To show both sides of the story, to be a voice of the voiceless and to speak truth to power. This has not changed. For example, our coverage of Egypt remains one that reports the facts.”
The thawing of relations between the Gulf states has not deterred Ghada from pursuing her lawsuit. “This case is about much more than just me. It is about standing up for free speech and journalists everywhere, as well as exposing the vast propaganda networks in America and the Middle East used to spread disinformation and attacks. Female journalists have increasingly been coming under attack for reporting on abuses of power. We cannot allow oppressive regimes to continue intimidating journalists, male or female. We all have a duty to stop this.”
For Ghada, victory will be when justice is served and MBS and his associates are held accountable for their heinous crimes. However, a decade since the Arab uprisings which swept the region promising greater liberties, journalists have been forced to contend with even greater challenges. “Unfortunately, the promise of freedom that came with the uprisings of 2011 was quickly replaced by nightmares with the killing and imprisonment of journalists by the likes of the [Egyptian] Sisi and [Syrian] Assad regimes,” says Ghada.
“That has been confounded by the resources directed at attacking journalists by Arab regimes and those that support the counter revolution. The murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the barbaric nature of it, and the fact that his killers remain unpunished is probably the starkest and most chilling depiction of the challenges facing journalists today.”