Bad, Bad Al-Watan (Updated)

UPDATE II 21/6/09: Jamal Khashoggi was not fired. He wrote an editorial today about the incident, saying “maybe what the Prince wanted to tell us is that there are many good things that you can do to serve this nation, and that is what we are going to do.”

UPDATE 21/6/09:There are conflicting reports regarding Khashoggi. Some sources confirm that he was fired, and some other sources deny it. I’m told he is unreachable because he is outside the country on vacation.

UPDATE 20/6/90: It has been confirmed that Jamal Khashoggi, the editor-in-chief of al-Watan, has been fired after the incident. This is the second time Khashoggi is fired of this job; the first one was in 2003.

For a long time I made no secret of my frustration with the policy of closing shops for prayer time, and also the fact that some government employees use prayer as an excuse to neglect their jobs. Actually, I posted about this more than four years ago. As the margin for freedom of expression is slowly increasing, the local press is finally getting the courage to discuss this matter, with a few articles appearing here and there. Here’s one of these articles that was published in al-Watan last week. Since the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is the body responsible for enforcing this policy, I don’t think this will change anytime soon.

But speaking of the Commission and al-Watan, something interesting happened a few days ago. The Commission held an event in Riyadh last Tuesday to celebrate launching a strategic plan for the Hay’a. The ceremony was under the patronage of Prince Naif, the Second Deputy Premier and Minister of Interior, and after the ceremony there was a press conference where reporters had a chance to ask him about all kinds of issues.

The last questions in the press conference was by Mohammed Nasser al-Asmari, who writes a column for al-Watan. He asked the minister to explain why Riyadh has more Commission centers than police centers. Prince Naif said this is untrue, “and may God increase [the Commission centers],” he added, and then he went on to criticize the newspaper saying they have bad intentions, and that they attract writers against the faith and against the nation.

Al-Watan, which is considered one of the more liberal Arabic-langauge newspapers in the country, has strangely omitted the criticism from their coverage of the event that was leading their front page on Wednesday. Some observers have expressed their fear that the relative freedom al-Watan enjoyed since its inception might be coming to an end.

Adwan al-Ahmari, the reporter whose name appears in the byline of the story, told me the newspaper did not include that question in their coverage because al-Asmari is an opinion writer who does not represent the newspaper and that he was speaking for himself only. While I understand the choice the editors made here, I’m not sure if this was the best choice. Ignoring that comment raises questions about their transparency and credibility at a time when they really needed to emphasize such values.


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