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.

Ready to be disappointed?

I had an interesting, albeit infuriating, conversation with a conservative friend of mine last week (yes, I do have conservative friends, can you believe that?). My friend said Saudis should not respond to the calls to protest posted on Facebook because if they do they would be ungrateful to their country. I was gobsmacked. “Huh?! What do you mean?” I asked.

“Our government has given us everything,” he said. “In the past, our nation was a made up of poor tribes fighting each other over food and water. Look at us now. Look at our cities, our universities, our hospitals. Our country is the homeland of Islam. You should thank your lucky stars you where born here. Those who call for change are evil, because they want to waste all these great things that we enjoyed for so long. They want to replace safety and stability with mayhem and chaos, and we must not let them achieve that.”

After he finished that monologue, I ended the conversation. There was no point in debating with him after he labeled all those who might have a different opinion as disloyal, ungrateful brats. Few days later, I wished that I did not end the conversation on that note. I wished I told him this:

Thanks to the vast oil wealth, our country had made some quick developments. But to put it the way you did is wrong and patronizing. We are not subjects; we are citizens. And when the government does what it should be doing (like building schools and hospitals), it is by no means doing us a favor, because this is their job and duty. And it is our right as citizens of a country that enjoys great resources to get a good education, proper health care, and high living standards. More importantly, it is our right to live in dignity, be free to speak our minds, and have a say in how our country is run.

When the so-called Friday of Rage finally came around, very little rage was actually seen on the street. Except for a man named Khaled, the streets remained awfully quiet thanks to the heavy presence of security forces. One picture from Olaya St. showed chains of police cars, bumper to bumper, on both sides of the street. What happened, or rather what did not happen, on Friday has shown that contrary to what some people said, the fear barrier has not been broken yet. But it has also shown how nervous the government was.

The very audible sigh of relief released by the government in the day after reveals that the government did not get the message of Friday. Or maybe that they chose to ignore the message. Who knows?

While we wait for the imminent cabinet reshuffle, the news came out that the next cycle of municipal elections will be held in September. I saw conflicting reports over the participation of women, though. Some reports said women will be allowed to vote but not allowed to run. Other reports said women will not be allowed to take part at all due to “social reasons.” Considering that the old councils have been useless, and that the elections have been delayed several times before, I wonder if the public really cares about this anymore.

Interestingly, the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) came out with a statement on Tuesday calling for reforms and urging the government to expand public participation. The language of the statement is much, much weaker than what we have read in other reform petitions released in the past weeks. While the previous petitions call for a constitutional monarchy and a fully elected parliament, NSHR merely calls on the government to “look into electing some members of provincial councils and the Shoura Council.” NSHR is said to be close to the government.

Some observers suggested that the statement reflects the thinking of the government and what they are willing to offer at this point. Such offer will probably fall short of what many people want. If the government is serious about reform, the least they can offer now is a fully elected Shoura Council with some teeth. Anything less than that will be a disappointment, and I don’t think that most people are ready for more disappointments. We had quite a few of those in recent months.