Journalism in Saudi Arabia: A Personal Thought

Friday 22 April 2005 (13 Rabi` al-Awwal 1426)
Roger Harrison, roger@arabnews. com

Journalists: Custodians of a nation’s integrity? Sand in the shoe? Opinion formers? Pains in the neck or a carcinogenic excrescence on the lucent face of a perfect society?

It all depends on the circumstances. Much as boxing is defined as “the noble art” when the reality is two very fit people each trying to batter the other unconscious, journalists frequently ascribe noble motives to what is at base a simple task: Reporting.

That said, getting to the stage where the reporting can be done is often more like a boxing match in its physicality than the cerebral pursuit one might imagine. Involvement with the “rat pack” of press that flocculates around anyone who, if only for a few minutes, is newsworthy often yields bruises and scratches as badges of honor to be carried back to the newsroom for sympathetic cooing by editors. They within seconds blow the facade of their concern by asking “Did you get the story?”

In Saudi Arabia, the “rat pack” is a little less aggressive than elsewhere, although the odd hefty shove in the back or an “accidental” spillage of hot tea down a trouser leg to make a space for a competitor is not unknown. And those are your journalistic brethren.

There is no denying it; Saudi Arabia is a naturally secretive society. Questions about newsworthy events such as arrests, shootings – the stuff of local news elsewhere – are frequently met with blandishments or confected stories that yield little information or much in the way of checkable fact.

Security concerns aside, even high-profile events in the public gaze attract a neurosis about security bordering on the psychotic. The pair of symbolic explosions in stolen cars parked outside a couple of banks on Sept. 11, 2004 is a case in point.

Streets closed off, police cars littered with gay abandon across the cityscape and crowds of patient onlookers staring at the scene on Tahlia Street. The moment a camera came into view, sharp faced gents with radios the size of house-bricks quite literally attacked me; one furious at being denied possession of the camera stamped on his foot so hard it broke my toe.

A warehouse fire with half a dozen fire appliances and several other photographers snapping the flames and the sterling efforts of the fire service produced a policeman with bad attitude and a Kalashnikov. His initial efforts failed to get the camera away from me and ended with my being punched inside my vehicle and an expensive Nikon damaged. His charming colonel sorted the situation out when the officer discovered that even this behavior was going to leave him empty-handed – but left me with a broken camera and a couple of cuts. Generally speaking, our policemen are wonderful; at least, when you get high enough up the chain of command. Whatever happens at patrolman level is referred up the chain to a courteous colonel or similar and, once a relationship has been established, the situation is resolved. Nine or so confrontations in as many months have been resolved inside police cars in periods varying from one to three hours.

I quote in a slightly different context the disingenuous advice in an online journalism course,

“Somewhere right now … a journalism professor is telling a student, ‘Don’t get involved with the subject of your stories.'” Now you know how wrong or impossible to follow that advice really is.

The culture of suspicion and secrecy over quite ordinary inquiries or events pervades the whole public service structure. Official statistics are frequently hard to get and even harder to verify independently – a basic requirement of any news writer. Cameras in the most innocent situations – except when a local worthy wants his picture in the paper – frequently cause an allergic reaction among security or police forces. Once, aggressed by an armed policeman while photographing the Jeddah fountain at night – lit by spotlights and towering 260 meters above the Corniche and admired by crowds of thousands – I was told under no circumstances to take pictures of it; it was secret. Five meters away Saudi families were photographing exactly the same thing.

Transparency – in many areas of genuine public interest – is a concept neither understood nor practiced. It is the major challenge to operating as a journalist in the Kingdom and reporting news.

It is the reporting of actuality rather than confected reality in an attempt at building a good PR image for the rest of the world that will generate the feeling of trust toward the Kingdom that it openly admits is lacking. “Warts and all” reporting is in the long term far more understandable and appealing to the rest of the world than the attempt at perpetuating an image of perfection that no one believes. An example is the Kingdom’s open admission to internal terrorism; once the world saw that Saudi Arabia was, far from a “vile exporter of state terror” but a victim of extremism – just like many other countries, then relations with states once vociferous in their criticism of the Kingdom underwent a sea-change for the better.

Until we can report even more factually and openly, I will keep the toe plaster and spare camera handy – just in case.

* * *
(As Senior Reporter, Roger Harrison both writes and photographs news and local stories and specializes in environmental and water issues.)

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