Saudi media ‘pushing envelop’ on taboos, says Gazette editor

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Saudi Arabia’s media industry is pushing the boundaries on ‘taboo’ subjects like never before, according to the editor of a prominent English-language newspaper.

The kingdom ranks among the world’s most restrictive countries in terms of media freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders, which placed Saudi Arabia 163rd in its latest Press Freedom Index.

But Khaled Almaeena, editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette, said that freedom of expression has grown “by leaps and bounds” over the last 15 years.

“People are discussing things that were totally a social taboo many years ago. We talk about… harassment of women, we talk about corruption, and incidents that have happened that one cannot hide,” Almaeena told Al Arabiya.

“You cannot imagine in the last 15 years… how things have changed in this country,” he added.

Almaeena said topics being covered in a different way range from criticism of “half-baked” fatwas (religious edicts), to the coverage of natural disasters such as the 2009 Jeddah floods, as well as corruption among public officials.

“[One] thing that one did not focus on before was the inappropriate behavior of officials. Now I think we’re pushing the envelope; if there is anything wrong in any of the ministries, or an official has done something, we are pushing that,” he said.

Almaeena took the editorship of Saudi Gazette in April 2012, having twice been editor of the rival newspaper Arab News, from 1982 to 1993 and from 1998 to 2011.

He says that the Jeddah-headquartered Saudi Gazette, which was founded in 1976 and is published by the Okaz Organization for Press and Publication, is turning its attention to boosting its online coverage. Almaeena told Al Arabiya about how the media landscape in Saudi Arabia is changing – and how the Saudi Gazette plans to evolve with it.

Q&A with Khaled Almaeena, editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette

Q. What’s your take on media freedom in Saudi Arabia?

It’s how one plays the game - we push the envelope. I have been very lucky to have dealt with certain situations: for example, the Saudi girls who participated in the Olympics. Not much attention was given to them – but we had them on page one. Because people were phoning and saying ‘why does the Saudi media not focus on this historical event?’ One large hotel chain cancelled 150 subscriptions of another paper and took us, because they said that we had the guts to print this amid a conservative outburst against their participation [in the Olympics]. We have also focused on the labor issue, the Nitaqat [Saudization program] issue, women’s rights, on human rights, and the environment.

Q. What are the ‘red lines’ that you still must not cross in your newspaper’s coverage, if any?

There are red lines, I’ll be very frank with you. There are the conservative elements, or the religious elements who one does not want to antagonize. But one has to call a spade a spade. If things go wrong, or if a fatwa is given that we deem is against society, or is given by some half-baked… self-appointed religious scholar, then we have to take them to task, and we have to confront people. But with these red lines, one has to be very careful of how to cross them, when to approach an issue which is basically religious in nature, so as not to antagonize people.

Q. Is it just Saudi Gazette that is ‘pushing the envelope’?

We are doing it, and other papers are doing it. And I’d like to give credit to two things. One is the government. After King Abdullah took over, his team realized that with all the advancement in technology and social media there aren’t things that you can push under the table.

Q. Give us some examples.

With the Jeddah floods [in 2009] people were baying for blood. And then of course there were scandals in hospitals - a patient infected with HIV because of a wrong blood transfusion. These things were unheard of [in the media]. At the Saudi Gazette, I think we have gone much further and pushed on labor issues and on the sponsorship system, which I think has caused a lot of pain to many of the expatriates who have come to Saudi and then they find that their contracts have changed, and many people have not been paid their salaries. We kept pushing.

Q. Have you faced any backlash?

On a certain occasion a Saudi called me and said ‘why are you defaming Saudi Arabia?’ And I said ‘I’m not defaming Saudi Arabia. When I write about this, the people will know that we Saudis are not hard-hearted and cruel, that we have empathy and care for these issues’.

Q. So how would you sum up the change over the last 15 years?

People now express themselves boldly. The change I find is that those topics and subjects are discussed without let or hindrance. Many of the writers, if they find that the editor had spiked [decided not to publish] their article, what they do is go online and tell people the story that had been spiked. And they get tens of thousands of people reading it. So that’s why I have to now fight with Twitter. My competitor is Twitter, my competitor is Facebook. My competitor is somebody who passes by and sees an accident and writes about it. So there’s no way you can say there was no accident.

Q. How confident are you that you can win that fight against Twitter?

We are very confident, but it depends also on the journalists you have. What also is good is that more women have entered [the industry]. My deputy [Somayya Jabarti] is a woman, and I think women are much more probing in as far as news and analysis are concerned. They are better writers and they are more concerned about society because they have children, or they take care of family; they want jobs.

Q. How are professional standards in Saudi Arabia more generally?

There are not many professional people here, like in the West, as far as journalism is concerned. But I see among those people the hope. So I am confident. [But] many people took journalism as a side job, because it doesn’t pay a lot… also it wasn’t considered a safe job. I remember when I took my first editorial position, my mother was telling me ‘why are you doing this?’ And I quoted Robert Kennedy, and said ‘Men are not made for safe havens’. And one has to do this. Because in journalism you are acting as a partner with the government. You act as a developer, you play a role of somebody in society.

Q. What challenges remain within the Saudi media industry?

The first challenge for the Saudi media is to find the right people to work in the media. The other challenge is to convince the authorities and those in power that when somebody writes about the mistreatment of mental patients in hospital, it is not to deride the Ministry of Health, it is to point out what is happening. I think the government realizes this. But there are certain elements who work in ministries or so on, who think that any critical piece is something that we deliberately do to make them look bad. No. I say in my message to all that we are there to highlight these issues so that corrective action will be taken for the people. To me the challenge is to seek [to convey the] news in a way that is not offensive to anyone, but at the same time, is not trying to paint a rosy picture because no country is devoid of problems.

Q. Has you editorial line on the current situation in Egypt differed in any way from that of the Saudi Arabian government?

When [former president Mohammad] Mursi took over, we had a balanced coverage and we supported the change; we were all for the people’s will. But personally having witnessed and having spoken to so many people in Egypt, and some people from the Brotherhood themselves… having heard from these people, of how the whole thing was mismanaged, we had our own line. We do not have to toe the line. And my line right now is that Mursi mishandled [his government]. But having said that, we have asked for probing the killings, we have questioned the excessive use of force [after Mursi’s ouster].

Q. What will Saudi Gazette be like in 2020? Will it exist in its current form, as a printed newspaper?

I think the focus is going to be more on the online version. We will exist [as a printed newspaper in 2020] but then we will have to come up with specialized editions… one would be focusing on the environment and another on health. Newspapers will evolve into a sort of magazine. So you can have the direct breaking news that you can check on your phone, but then the analysis and stuff like that, that will be done through our paper.

Q. So you see the future of print as almost like themed editions of the newspaper?

Yes. In the Middle East there are many people who are clinging to the paper edition and I think it will continue. In the Middle East for another 20 years newspapers are safe. They will not have the circulation figures that they had once, but they will exist.

Q. You’re described on your Wikipedia page as a liberal. Is that how you would define yourself?

I describe myself as a liberal conservative. I do not believe in tolerance but I believe in acceptance. Why should I tolerate? I accept people as they are. I have never had any feeling of animosity towards any religion or race, and I have always fought for equal rights for everyone. So my liberalism is political liberalism, but the acceptance of other viewpoints is there.

Q. You’ve been editor-in-chief of Arab News twice, and now the Saudi Gazette. What’s your formula for success?

To do things right, and to go by principals and standards. But also to have a great team. [But not necessarily a team of] people who think like you; I don’t want clones. I think the success of the newspaper was that we catered to people, we had empathy for our readers.

Q. Why did you leave Arab News for the first time?

I was asked to leave my position once, in 1993… I had to leave because of a news item about [former Egyptian president] Mubarak. But then it is a newspaper; we all step on a minefield once in a while, and not only here.

Q. How is the Saudi Gazette faring commercially?

Newspapers [in general] have taken a big hit. But the clever editor and the clever marketer in newspapers is someone who is able to arrange a happy marriage between online and print. But ads have gone down in certain newspapers, but not all. Luckily our sister publication Okaz is doing well; for years it carried the Saudi Gazette on its shoulders. But I said ‘give me a couple of years to fix it up’. And praise be the Lord in the first year we were able to reduce losses totally, almost. And this year I hope to break even.

Q. What are the Saudi Gazette circulation numbers like?

The circulation so far now has risen. In Saudi it’s about 47,000… I would give a total average of 55,000 give or take a few thousand. But the good point is that online, we have gone up by leaps and bounds. When we took over there were only 25 Twitter followers, now we have 9,000.

Q. About ten years ago the Saudi Gazette changed to tabloid format, but then reverted back to broadsheet. What are your thoughts about new formats?

I’m against papers experimenting all the time… that really hits the advertising section a lot because people would not have confidence in a paper that changes a lot… In the next couple of years we may be redesigning some [aspects], but within the parameters of what we have.

Q. Some PR executives say there is a culture of bribery in the Saudi Arabian media, with journalists excepting gifts and even cash in exchange for coverage. Is that something you’ve witnessed?

Oh yes. We’ve been fighting this. But let me tell you the real culprits are the PR companies. How would I accept a bribe if somebody doesn’t come to me? They’ve been doing this… I don’t know about the cash aspect, but I know that gifts have been given. We fired two journalists in a previous position for having accepted a watch. This is unfortunately happening in this part of the world; I’m not just talking about Saudi Arabia. But this is slowly dying down because the editors – if they come to know about it – for their own welfare and professional integrity they will not accept such a kind of thing. We are totally against it... My message to the PR people is that you better get your act together before you start blaming the journalists. Because the journalists are driven into this bribery and corruption by the PR agents.

Khaled Almaeena, editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette, meets King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. (Photo courtesy: Khaled Almaeena SPA)
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