Pressures build on Saudi media

Sebastian Usher
BBC News
June 9, 2006

The media in Saudi Arabia has begun to broach topics such as religious extremism, women’s rights and unemployment that were once strictly off limits.

The changes have provided new insight into what has long been one of the most closed and conservative societies in the world.

In speeches broadcast on Saudi television, King Abdullah has repeated what is now the dominant message of his reign – Saudi Arabia must stamp out the threat of home-grown Islamic extremism. It is a complete switch after decades of denial that Saudi Arabia had any such problem. It was the involvement of Saudi citizens in 9/11 that forced the reversal. The Saudi media changed, too – as for the first time it began to examine issues that had once been hidden.

“Journalists and newspapers have begun to tackle taboo subjects – like unemployment, crime, the issues of women’s rights and security forces’ battles with Islamic extremists,” says Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists who has spent months assessing these changes.

“This type of coverage was not in evidence over the last decade – after all, remember Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s was a country where after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, the press didn’t report the invasion for the first 48 hours.”

Prescient warning

On May 12, 2003, Saudi TV flashed the news that the capital Riyadh was itself the latest target of Islamist suicide bombers. The attacks provoked unprecedented criticism in the Saudi press of religious extremism. There was an interesting example involving a Saudi columnist Adel al-Toraifi who wrote for al-Watan at the time,” says Joel Campagna.

“He had submitted a column a few days before the suicide bombing in Riyadh. It was critical of religious extremism in Saudi Arabia and warned of potential violence on the scale of 11 September in the Kingdom if the government didn’t act.

“That column was spiked by his editor and a few days after the suicide bombings he resubmitted the piece and it ran.”

But the caution of the Saudi authorities had not been swept aside – it soon became clear that the conservative religious establishment would not take the unprecedented media criticism without hitting back. “It got to the point where one Saudi writer even challenged the writings of Ibn Taymiyya who was a mediaeval religious philosopher whose teachings are the underpinning of the Wahhabi doctrine that prevails inside Saudi Arabia – and this was an extremely explosive piece which set off rancorous protests and eventually led to the dismissal of Jamal Kashoggi who was then editor in chief of al-Watan,” Joel Campagna says.

Opening the door

Now based in Washington as media advisor to the Saudi ambassador to the US, Jamal Kashoggi says he has no regrets.

“I feel good about the price that was paid because it opened up the door for more openness in the Saudi media,” he said.”It’s now very common for Saudi intellectuals to argue even with the Grand Mufti, and this is very healthy. We will always maintain our respect for our scholars and clergy and muftis – but at the same time one of the good things about our Wahhabi background is we see no-one as holy except God himself.”

There are these pressures, with journalists who continue to be in the crosshairs of the government and of religious conservatives.

Joel Campagna Committee to Protect Journalists

But self-censorship is still strong in Saudi Arabia. The recent detention of a young journalist, Rabah al-Quwai, was covered by only one newspaper.

He had written articles suggesting some Islamic teaching in Saudi Arabia was encouraging violence.

Joel Campagna says what happened to Rabah Al-Quwai shows the obstacles still blocking real freedom of speech.

“I think what his case goes to illustrate is there are these pressures – with journalists who continue to be in the crosshairs of the government, of religious conservatives.

“They face behind-the-scenes pressures and are impeded in their ability to operate freely and to publish news and views about sensitive topics.”

Afraid of reform

These are confusing times for Saudi journalists, with unclear signals over what they can and can’t write.

The inconsistency is largely down to the conflict between those pursuing limited reform in the government and the conservative religious establishment that sees such changes as a threat.

“Sometimes a writer feels that the government is encouraging let’s say women’s reform, women’s empowerment and then he goes and writes furiously and aggressively about this and then he will receive a telephone call from an official advising him to be patient, to refrain from using certain words,” says Jamal Kashoggi.

“He must have received a complaint from one of the sceptics – one of the paranoid conservative circles who is afraid of this approaching reform.”

King Abdullah is trying to create a national dialogue to reconcile these differences and the Saudi media is seen as key to this effort.

Some say the changes are a way for Saudi society to begin to see itself and understand itself more clearly as it faces the prospect of social, cultural and political upheaval.