The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

How the Saudis control their media

Through a clever system of disincentives, according to a US Embassy cable from Riyadh:

//The Stick//

20. (S/NF) Although all chief editor positions in Saudi Arabia must be approved by the Minister of Information, it is the job of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) to take action against editors and writers who refuse to follow government directives and policies. In the past, the MOI played a largely reactive role in this regard through its Supreme Information Council, which would discuss questionable material and order editors to be scolded or fired, or at times ban publication of the paper for a certain period of time.

21. (S/NF) According to our contacts, however, a more effective system is in place. Instead of being fired or seeing their publications shut down, editors now are fined SR 40,000 ($10,600) out of their own salaries for each objectionable piece that appears in their newspaper. Journalists, too, are held to account. Instead of the Supreme Information Council in Riyadh taking the lead in tracking what journalists write, there are now MOI committees in each Saudi city that know their community well and have a keen ear for who is talking about what. If these MOI operatives detect a problematic pattern in a journalist’s writing (or even hear through channels that he or she is heading down a certain line of inquiry), they will invite the journalist for a chat, during which they will discuss the origin of these perspectives, suggest alternative approaches, ask after the family, etc.,.. These mechanisms, our contacts say, have been very effective in reining in media opinion that the SAG doesn’t like.

SAG, by the way, is the very appropriate shorthand for "Saudi Arabia Government." There's more in there about media ownership, Rupert Murdoch's plan to launch an Arabic version of the Wall Street Journal, and a softer touch on religious channels. 

Update: Commenter Alexandra points out that this cable has mostly gotten attention for its claim that Saudis are being mellowed by shows like Friends and Desperate Housewives. It's true that Saudi-owned channels show a remarkable range of American TV culture, usually the worse of the range (the reality shows about fat people, wanna-be celebrities, incredibly vapid teen sitcoms, etc.) that exists in the You Ess of A. I suppose that there might be a soporific benefit from this, or at least an effect whereby such shows slowly melt the brain cells of those who watch them.

But, watching them from time to time as I do, I am shocked at the extent to which a) these shows and that TV and mall culture appear to be becoming a substitute for indigenous culture for foreign-educated middle classes and others; b) much of the material shows America in a poor light; and c) much of it must reinforce the ultra-conservatives' view that America and the West are culturally and socially doomed and will end up something like the movie Idiocracy. A show like Desperate Housewives, in fact, could induce some people to have their very own Sayyid Qutb moment, without ever having to visit Greeley, Colorado or Wysteria Lane.