Arab News runs a good piece about the difficulty of providing accurate reporting about Saudi Arabia. Whether it’s foreign reporters or Saudi reporters, the lack of verifiable information, the close-hold that Saudis (both in and outside of government) put on information, and a culture that seems to foster secrecy make it too easy to come up with erroneous stories. The problem is compounded by social media like Twitter that can spread stories across the globe before facts have even gotten their shoes on.

The problem can have international ramifications, as a close-call by the Associated Press demonstrated last year. A particular report was so wrong — and so potentially damaging to Saudi Arabia — that the news agency faced expulsion from the Kingdom. This is not new; I spent a considerable amount of my time, in many Arab countries, working to prevent reporters from being thrown out or having their bureaus closed. In all of these countries, in all of these circumstances, it was because governments held information too closely that reporters ended up following the wrong trail.

The answer is not — as the caption to a photo accompanying the article suggests — only taking information from authorized sources. Authorized sources may or may not be good ones. It would not be shocking to learn that a Ministry responsible for particular subject matter was clueless about a breaking event, at least in the early stages of a story. Nor would it be surprising that a government office would seek to minimize its responsibility when something goes off the rails. Silence, however, does not serve. As the saying goes, ‘Nature abhors a vacuum.’ This goes for information as well. When no reliable information is forthcoming, reporters will try to fill the void with what they can get. Responsible reporting seeks to verify every detail, but not all reporting is responsible. Often, too often, reporters (both professionals and others) end up filling voids with stereotypes.

The article specifically points to the Internet sensation of “The guy who was too beautiful for Saudi Arabia” that’s been ping-ponging around for the past few weeks. A great story! A story that had zero basis in fact. But because the story played so well to stereotypes of ‘typical’ Saudi behavior, global audiences had no trouble believing it truly happened.

Saudi government and Saudi society bear some part of the blame, though. Lack of government transparency and Saudi society’s over-protection of privacy stops honest inquiry. Reading a Saudi media report on anti-terrorism trials, for example, is futile. Reporting provides no useful information beyond the fact that a trial was held and some people received sentences. Exactly who was accused of doing what, and what evidence was presented against them just doesn’t exist in any public form. With no information to consider, it’s not surprising that individuals will also seek to fill the information vacuum. It’s too bad for the Saudi government (and Saudi Arabia as a whole) that people will reach wrong conclusions. They could avoid it by making more information available.

International media: So wrong, so often

Last December The Associated Press committed a blunder that could have resulted in the expulsion of its correspondent from Saudi Arabia, severing a vital information link between the Kingdom and the rest of the world.

The mistake occurred during The AP’s coverage of the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) conference in Manama, Bahrain, where attendees discussed security issues in the Syrian region among other topics.

The AP reporter wrote that Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah said that Gulf Arab states must quash any Arab Spring-inspired unrest or risk threats to their leadership across the oil-rich region.

According to the AP, “The comments echoed calls by Gulf authorities to widen crackdowns on perceived opposition such as rights activists and Islamist factions.

“His remarks also appeared aimed at justifying the intervention last year in Bahrain by a Saudi-led Gulf military force.

May:26:2013 - 08:13 | Comments & Trackbacks (7) | Permalink
7 Responses to “Reporting on Saudi Arabia: A Tough Job”
  1. 1
    Andrew Said:
    May:27:2013 - 16:29 

    You are of course right that much more information should be available.

    Yet it is also true that Western reporters fail to understand our society, and hyperfocus on a few issues that would distress Westerners a great deal (the absence of numerous civil rights) and to which Saudis are either long inured or perhaps favour.

    Most Westerners are unable to meaningfully access our language, and tend to over rely on reports from a small number of government officials.

  2. 2
    John Burgess Said:
    May:27:2013 - 18:09 

    @Andrew: That’s all true. They also tend to rely on a small number of non-government spokesmen without really understanding the agendas they bear.

    On the other hand, it’s a fairly recent phenomenon since the KSA allowed news agencies to set up permanent bureaus in the Kingdom. That mean that whatever reporting was being done was being done by people who were in and out of the country on five-day or one-month visas. Not a good formula for informed reporting.

  3. 3
    Andrew Said:
    May:29:2013 - 17:20 

    John Burgess, I agree.

    However, to be effective, greater reliance and use of Saudi journalists should exist.

    Our own people will far better understand our society than a Westerner, or than an Egyptian or Lebanese.

    Our society is complex even for ourselves.

  4. 4
    John Burgess Said:
    May:29:2013 - 19:08 

    @Andrew: While Saudi journalism is getting better, it’s still got a ways to go. The article noted that even Saudi reporters get it wrong too often, albeit sometimes because official spokesmen just won’t speak.

  5. 5
    Andrew Said:
    May:30:2013 - 16:30 

    I agree, but I believe that Saudi journalism has the greatest potential to both be informative to others and to also transform our own society (because good journalism would require a set of values by the journalists that are generally discouraged in our society).

  6. 6
    John Burgess Said:
    May:31:2013 - 08:17 

    @Andrew: Yes, it could, but going against social values is more likely to end up with the press being more controlled than it already is. Naming names of miscreants is important to society in many ways, but it’s taboo in Saudi society. Reporting on what goes on in terrorism trials — or any trial, for that matter — is both educational and informative, but not acceptable under current social rules and government fiat. Saudi media still has a ways to go to escape its reputation as simply being another government voice that says only what it wants to say and nothing more.

  7. 7
    Aunty May Said:
    May:31:2013 - 23:16 


    I support what you are saying, that it is not acceptable under current social rules and government fiat.

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