The Committee to Protect Journalists recently released an outstanding report on the Saudi media.
It opens with an account of the appearance of the daily newspaper Shams, partly owned by Prince Turki al-Faisal, launched in 2005 aimed at a young demographic and pushing against some of the traditional red lines. Shams got shut down for running the cartoons of Mohammed for a couple of weeks, after "hard-line clerics and
religious figures protested Shams’ liberal
approach and urged authorities to take action. A compromise worked out
through the Information Ministry allowed the paper to reopen if it
dismissed its 32-year-old editor-in-chief, Batal al-Qaws. He was fired
in late February."
The CPJ report notes both positive and negative developments:
Today, Saudi papers publish news and opinions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, even as government and religious officials employ an array of behind-the-scenes controls to curtail enterprising coverage that offends the government or important religious constituencies.
Following 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, the country’s bottled-up media demonstrated periods of boldness and addressed once-taboo topics such as crime, unemployment, women’s rights—and, most significant, religious militancy. Today, Saudi columnists publish probing articles about religious extremists’ use of summer camps to indoctrinate Saudi youth, while commentators argue that women should have the right to drive cars. The government has allowed at least one new daily publication to appear on newsstands, and newly licensed dailies are said to be on the way. Applications for visas and long-term accreditation for foreign journalists, once exercises in futility, are being granted to international news organizations.
But progress has been uneven and limited, and the margin of freedom is one that “is given and taken away,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a liberal academic whose columns for the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat of London were abruptly banned by the government after he questioned official reform efforts. Independent writers point to a web of formal and informal restrictions that prevent them from covering central social and political issues of the day.
The report identifies three major problems:
- Government officials dismiss editors, suspend or blacklist dissident writers, order news blackouts on controversial topics, and admonish independent columnists over their writings to deter undesirable criticism or to appease religious constituencies.
- The country’s conservative religious establishment acts as a powerful lobbying force against enterprising coverage of social, cultural, and religious matters. The multilayered religious sector includes official clerics, religious scholars, the religious police, radical revivalist preachers, and their followers.
- Compliant government-approved editors squelch controversial news, acquiesce to official pressures to tone down coverage, and silence critical voices. Independent reporting on politics remains nearly absent from the Saudi press, CPJ’s analysis found. While newspapers occasionally criticize the performance of low-level government ministries or public institutions, critical coverage of the royal family, friendly foreign governments, rampant corruption, regional divisions, and oil revenue allocations remain off-limits. Debate over major foreign policy positions and the concerns of the country’s disenfranchised Shiite minority are also considered banned topics.
It sums up the state of the Saudi media like this:
Although newspapers are privately owned, the state exerts tremendous influence over what is reported. The government approves the appointments of editors-in-chief, a process that journalists say is done behind closed doors with the oversight of Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the powerful interior minister. In practice, though not by law, newspapers require the financial or political backing of a member of the royal family. Unlike in other parts of the region, “opposition journalism” simply doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia. While some columnists have criticized low-level ministers, news coverage is typically devoid of anything reflecting negatively on the royal family, high-ranking officials, and the country’s religious clerics and institutions.
Top editors and most journalists view themselves as defenders of the ruling Al-Saud family, and government officials ensure allegiance by applying behind-the-scenes pressure—issuing directions on sensitive stories, banning coverage of certain topics, and taking punitive actions against journalists. Over the past decade, CPJ research shows, dozens of editors, writers, academics, and other media critics have been suspended, dismissed from their jobs, or banned from appearing in the Saudi press. The actions came by government order, the intervention of religious leaders, or at the initiative of editors. Other journalists have faced detention, questioning by security authorities, and travel bans.
The CPJ report presents numerous examples of columnists and reporters who were fired, banned, or worse.
- Abdel Mohsen Mosallam, who wrote poems critical of the judiciary ("Mosallam’s editor was dismissed, reportedly at the order of the interior minister;Mosallam himself was detained and banned from writing in the Saudi press."
- Jamal Khashoggi, whose newspaper attacked clerics for condoning terrorism ("Al-Watan’s Khashoggi was the most notable casualty; he was forced to step down on the order of then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz. Interior Minster Nayef rebuked editors for articles criticizing Wahhabism, and, over the course of several months, government agents warned editors and writers to steer clear of religious taboos, the religious establishment, and reforms being discussedby intellectuals.");
- Hussein Shobokshi, who wrote in favor of an accountable government with greater rights for women ("He was quickly blacklisted from the Saudi press for the next year and his newly launched talk show on the Saudi-owned satellite broadcaster Al-Arabiya was cancelled. His editor told Shobokshi that he was banned, but the editor didn’t say why or by whom. “The ban was so ugly I could not write anywhere,” Shobokshi said in an interview in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah. “It taught me how things are run in this country.” The case is emblematic of the behind-the-scenes pressures facing outspokenSaudi journalists. Shobokshi’s ban was never announced, and there was no documentation that the journalist ever saw. Although many bans are imposed by fax from the Ministry of Information, journalists said, others are handled with simple phone calls from religious or political officials.
- Wajeha al-Howeidar, who wrote about women's rights ("in 2003 Saudi newspapers abruptly stopped publishing her articles. “I learned while I was on vacation. Friends said, ‘We heard you were banned,’”... The ban was triggered, though, by a May 2003 piece that described the case of an abused Saudi teen who took photos of his bruises with the intention of eventually suing his father. His father had gone unpunished, she wrote.... The Information Ministry, according to al-Howeidar, approached her last summer and offered to lift the ban if she traveled abroad as a goodwill ambassador and spoke about advances in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She refused.)
- Hassan Malaki ("permanently blacklisted for questioning Wahhabism")
- Mansour al-Nogaidan, who wrote an op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the Saudi educational system ("summoned to a five-star hotel in Riyadh for questioning by intelligence agents... Agents phoned him within days with the terse message that his writings had “offended the state.” He was detained for five days by the mubahith, and editors at Al-Riyadh wouldn’t publish his columns for several months.)
There is a lot more in this extremely well-done report by Joel Campagna. It may help to explain why so many of us are so deeply skeptical of the Saudi owned media, including al-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Arabiya, even if they are currently following a broadly pro-American line.