So You Want to Be a Saudi Journalist?

With government’s blessings or against its wishes, the margin for freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia has been gradually expanding over the last few years. Some topics that used to be taboo are now regularly discussed on the pages of newspapers, though other taboos remain, but the number of those is decreasing.

The fact that many Saudis began to use the internet as a source of news and a place to express themselves posed a challenge for newspapers who began to lose their readers. But in a way, the internet and the freedom available online was good for the mainstream media in the country because it has put pressure on them to become freer, to stay relevant and to keep at least some of their readership.

The relations between newspapers and the government, however, did not change much. All newspapers remain loyal to the government, which must approve the editors that get nominated by the owners of each paper. Newspapers content is not pre-censored by the government, but editors effectively act as gatekeepers, making sure that anything that gets published shall remain within the accepted lines of the government.

Despite this, the government seems unhappy with the press.

During the weekly cabinet meeting in Jeddah earlier this week, the government made some decisions related to the press because “some unspecialized writers and journalists have made incorrect and fabricated allegations regarding the activities of some ministries looking after public services.”

Most of these decisions has to do with how ministries handle media, such as defining the tasks of spokesmen and “opening channels of contact and cooperation with the media.”

The Cabinet also said that if any government body finds that a media agency has published incorrect news and has not responded in an appropriate manner to the replies of the government agency, then it should immediately report the matter to the official bodies responsible for looking into and resolving these cases besides filing a lawsuit against the erring media agency or journalist.

However, there was one more decision that has sparked controversy: “The Cabinet also confined the practice of journalism to journalists accredited by the Saudi Journalists Association.”

The decision raised many eyebrows because the majority of journalists in Saudi Arabia are not members of SJA.

SJA has been around for almost 10 years now, but you probably have not heard of it until now. Since its inception, SJA has been fully controlled by the government-approved newspaper editors, who have easily won the latest board elections held last week. 440 full members of SJA voted in the elections.

Yes, 440 is the number of full members of SJA who have voting rights. Only full-time journalists can obtain full membership. Freelancers cannot obtain full membership and therefor cannot vote to elect SJA board.

For a country that has 11 daily newspapers, dozens of magazines, television and radio channels, the number 440 is very small. I don’t know the exact number of full-time journalists in the country, but I think it is safe to assume it is more than 440. In addition to those, there are thousands of freelancers (some estimate that 80% of those working in Saudi media are freelancers).

Why aren’t they members of SJA? Probably because SJA has proven to be pretty useless for them. Why pay membership fees when you are not getting anything in return? I personally can’t recall any examples of SJA providing services to their members or to the country’s press. Are they going to register with SJA now after the government latest decision?

The old guard of editors were quick to cheer the decision, as they always do for everything the government does, but others in the media raised their concerns.

Communications consultant Sultan al-Bazie is skeptical, but he said he expects the ministry of information to explain the decision.

“In principle, if SJA were doing a satisfactory job for all journalists then maybe we would have a situation that allows for the decision to be implemented,” he told al-Watan. “But the current situation is not suitable, unless the ‘practice of journalism’ is something else they would later explain.”

In his interview with Sabq, Saudi minister of information Abdulaziz Khoja did not provide much in the way of explanation. He simply said the goal of the latest series of decisions by the cabinet is to regulate the practice of journalism in the country.

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Three anonymous sources

Arab News, the newspaper that calls itself “The Middle East’s Leading English Language Daily,” published this piece about the lack of lack of cultural and recreational activities available to women in Saudi Arabia. While I don’t question the premise of the story, I do have a problem with how the story is written. The piece quotes three women who decided to hide their identities. The first is a PE teacher, the second is a university professor, and the third is a “Saudi girl.” Two things: a) how could the editors pass a piece with three anonymous sources and not raise a flag? b) no offense to the three women, but I see no reason why they refused to be identified. I could cut the girl some slack, but not the the teacher and the professor. The way they put it makes you think they were revealing state secrets or something. Sheesh.

Talking to the Mirror

You are probably familiar with the name of Abdul Rahman al-Hazza by now. Al-Hazza is the deputy minister of information and culture who made the headlines a couple of weeks ago when he announced that Saudi bloggers need to register their sites with the government, before retracting his comments saying registration won’t be required but is highly encouraged.

Al-Hazza writes a column for Okaz newspaper where he occasionally says things that make no sense, especially coming from a government official.

Take for example his piece today: Al-Hazza talks about how Saudi Arabia has a very small number of journalists compared to the size of its population. He then goes on to say that the country needs more newspapers, radio stations, and television channels. He complains how we, and not I’m not sure exactly what he means by ‘we,’ only think about big newspapers and big television companies, asking: why there are no small regional newspapers, and why there are no local radio and television channels?

Huh?

You would think that Abdul Rahman al-Hazza, as a senior official in the Ministry of Culture and Information (MOCI), should know the answers to these questions, or at least is working to figure out the answers. As a fresh journalism student, I can’t claim that I know the answers for his big, open-ended questions, but I think I do have a teeny tiny pointer to offer: look at your own ministry!

When MOCI, after 3 long years of stagnation, finally decided to grant licenses for new radio stations to operate in the country earlier this year, the average price was around SR50 million. Just imagine what is the licensing costs for a newspaper or a television channel. I simply don’t believe that the ministry is serious about opening the space for more media outlets in Saudi Arabia.

As the debacle of the new law for regulating so-called “electronic media” showed, they are obsessed with control, and allowing more media outlets in the country means they will have to put so much more work into censoring and controlling these outlets. Why would they won’t to create a headache to themselves?

Noura al-Faiz cut out, Op-Ed writers do interviews

  • So Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, the minister of education, had a meeting with teachers. Present at the meeting were senior officials at the ministry, including Noura al-Faiz. At the end of the meeting, photos were taken. Few days later, the PR department at the ministry published special print materials to mark the occasion. However, there was something wrong with the the cover photo: Noura al-Faiz has been cut out! Prince Faisal said he was unhappy that this happened.
  • Ashraf al-Fagih thinks it is so strange that an op-ed writer like him would do an interview. The writer in question is his fellow columnist in al-Watan daily Mahmoud Sabbagh, who prepared the questions for an interview with an STC executive that was published two weeks ago. I agree with most of what Ashraf says. Most Saudi journalists are unprofessional and lack basic skills. However, I don’t think that opinion writers are exempt from doing journalistic tasks like conducting research and doing interviews. Actually, I believe this must be at the heart of their writing.

Speak of the Devil…

That was fast. Only a few minutes after posting this, look what I found: Hamza Al Mozainy is very disappointed at Sheikh Salman Al Awdah for an article about Eid Al Fitr that he wrote for Al Jazirah daily which included what can be considered hate speech. Al Mozainy has denounced in particular the use of the term ‘raifdah’ to describe Shiite Muslims. “[I]t is not meant as a description but rather discrimination against a group of Muslim Saudi citizens,” he said.

Just like Al Mozainy, I found it very surprising that Al Awdah, a sheikh that has become known for his moderation and tolerance, would say something like that. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t some sort of a misunderstanding or misquoting, so I went to Al Jazirah website to read the article myself. You can find it here, and unfortunately that paragraph Al Muzaini quoted is there.

Still, I had a feeling that there was something wrong. I went to Islam Today, a website supervised by Salman Al Awdah himself, where you can find most of his published articles and media appearances. I found the same article, but the paragraph about the Shiites was no where to be found. What is going on here? Did Al Awdah write that paragraph or not? Is it possible that an editor in Al Jazirah has added the paragraph to the article without the knowledge of Al Awdah?

In an email exchange earlier this morning, Al Mozainy told me it is unlikely that someone at Al Jazirah would have the audacity to edit the article. However, “it is the responsibility of Al Awdah to clarify this,” he added. I have emailed Sheikh Salman Al Awdah asking about the issue and I have yet to receive a response. If he responded I will update this post.

Poor Journalism Says Hi

I’ve been following the local mainstream media closely for the last three years. One of the things that I observed is that some of the English-language press here do a better job when it comes to reporting important and controversial local stories. Part of this has to do with the fact that they are in English so they are not under the radar of the censorship, but more importantly because their editors are usually committed to higher standards than their peers in the Arabic ones.

arab_news_logoHowever, every once in awhile the very same publications come up with gems like this which make me reconsider that observation. Other than some unknown market analysts, the reporter relied completely for his story on one source only: the owner of a company that runs a few of these amusement parks and who apparently looks forward to open more of them. And why not? I mean he, after all, was the one who said his “centers were located in attractive places, close to beaches and residential areas” as well as being “equipped with advanced educational and entertainment facilities.”

This piece of lousy reporting, and believe me I’m being way too nice to describe it as reporting when it sounds like a paid for commercial more than anything else, makes me lose my hope in the future of the fourth estate in this country. When I spent two weeks in the States last September I decided to take a break from the Saudi MSM while I was there and guess what? I didn’t miss it that much.