Building reform on the foundation of a free press

Building reform on the foundation of a free press

By Joel Campagna

An Arabic version of this article appeared in on September 10, 2005.

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia

“One of the first steps in reform is media reform,” a 28-year-old Saudi journalist told me over coffee last month at Mr. Keyf coffee shop on Tariq Abdullah. Reform was on the minds of many Saudi journalists and writers I met with during a two-week visit to the kingdom last month—the first of its kind by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Last year, then-Crown Prince Abdullah called for a process of “gradual” political and social reform. Whatever its pace, true reform will require empowering the country’s media to serve as a platform for free and open debate on the critical issues facing Saudi Arabia today.

The Saudi press has made important gains since the seismic events of September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States, and May 12, 2003, when suicide bombers struck Riyadh and killed more than two dozen people. Today, Saudi newspapers publish news and opinion that would have been unthinkable just five years ago. During my two-week stay, newspapers ran stories on crime, drug trafficking, and security forces’ battles with armed extremists. Columnists scrutinized religious summer camps used by extremists to indoctrinate Saudi youth; they published essays arguing for the right of women to drive automobiles. On my last day in Riyadh, Al-Watan, the country’s boldest daily, ran a critical commentary about religious extremists who teach in the country’s schools. Another of its columnists took prison officials to task for ignoring militancy in the country’s jails.

In some respects, Saudi press coverage rivals or surpasses that in other Arab countries when it comes to social and religious issues. Yet the margin of freedom “is given and taken away,” in the words of one Saudi academic, whose columns are no longer allowed to appear in the country’s newspapers. In fact, many Saudi journalists and writers point out that press freedoms, while markedly improved from the 1990s, have sharply regressed in the last 18 months.

Several writers and prominent intellectuals have been temporarily or permanently barred from writing in the press or speaking to the media, either by government order or through the decisions of their editors. Journalists also describe editorial or government pressures when they try to write critically about sensitive topics such as the country’s religious establishment. Self-censorship has increased, they say. And today, press coverage bears little resemblance to the days after May 2003 when newspapers published powerful columns about religious militancy, scrutinized the religious establishment, and tackled corruption.

Some Saudi journalists, particularly editors-in-chief, say they are content with the existing level of press freedom and that the 2003 “Prague Spring for the Media,” as one journalist dubbed it, was a case of too much too soon.

It would be a mistake for the government and the press to be complacent about media reform. A free and vibrant press that is able to debate the issues affecting the lives of citizens and scrutinize the actions of government is essential to helping Saudi Arabia meet its many social and political challenges at home.

Many journalists I spoke with feel the same way. “Most intellectuals are not against the government,” one writer said. “They are against certain policies and lines of thinking in the government. Criticizing the government can really be used to strengthen it.” Yet most writers express frustration at the timid approach of the press and the ongoing restrictions against writers. The frank discussions Saudis have today in their homes, in diywaniyyas, in coffee shops, on satellite television, or on the Internet are far better indicators of the nation’s discourse.

Much more can be done to reflect those voices in the national media.

For starters, the government should encourage greater openness in the press with a guarantee that authorities will not penalize journalists—directly or indirectly—for their professional activities. Greater openness should include independent reporting and higher scrutiny of the government. The government can foster greater independence and diversity in the media by halting its interference in the daily operations of newspapers, by scrapping the practice of appointing editors-in-chief, and by easing the process of obtaining new newspaper licenses.

The government isn’t the only force limiting press freedom. Editors must accept the challenge to elevate dialogue in the national press. “Freedom has been given to us for a long time but some editors don’t take it,” remarked the deputy editor of one major newspaper. “Some editors are more pro-government than the government itself.”

In one notable case last month, a Saudi TV Channel 3 director removed television talk show host Abdel Rahman al-Hussein after a show in which Saudi youths criticized the country’s religious police. A week later the host was reinstated following the intervention of Information Minister Iyad Madani.

Editors also need to be active in defending the rights of their colleagues. The recently formed Saudi Journalists Association, a positive development on paper, has been largely inactive, and journalists are cynical about its role as a positive force for the free press. Perhaps most telling was its silence following the Abdel Rahman al-Hussein’s temporary dismissal. The association, composed of the country’s leading editors, could gain instant credibility by advocating on behalf of journalists who face legal troubles or harassment for their work.

Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to the defense of press freedom worldwide.