Yesterday we had the opportunity to talk to a reporter from the Saudi Gazette, an English-language newspaper highly popular in Saudi Arabia. Our discussion ranged over a number of topics, but focused primarily on the nature, quality, and importance of the media in Saudi Arabia. A country’s media in many ways reveals the character of its society, and our discussion was therefore quite illuminating about where Saudi Arabia currently stands and where it may be going. Having spent the last few days reading Saudi newspapers, our discussion also helped provide me context for what I have been reading.
As with any other part of the world, providing the citizens of Saudi Arabia with a constant and quality flow of information about current events plays a very important role in keeping Saudi society informed and knowledge about the world. The media serves as a conduit of information, helping Saudis understand what is going on in their kingdom and abroad while also helping Saudis convey their own issues and concerns into a greater forum of discussion. This is a key step in any country’s development of a pluralistic, open society, and if the trip to Saudi Arabia has impressed anything on me, its that Saudi society is gradually heading in that direction. However, the Saudi media is still largely in a stage of infancy, having not reached the professionalism and journalistic quality frequently found in the West.
We discussed this fact with the reporter quite extensively, talking about the current state of the Saudi media, its shortcomings, and how it may develop. Much of the media in Saudi Arabia, and especially the written media, is produced either in Arabic or in English. The English-language papers are usually of a higher quality, as the skills needed to write and publish in English entails a college education and thus schooling in journalism. The Arabic-language papers are usually written by reporters without much education or training, and, according to the reporter we talked to, are therefore lacking in professionalism or quality. Articles are often bombastic or biased in their nature, or focus on things without much worth reporting. There have been a number of articles I’ve personally witnessed a fair share of articles warning about magic and sorcery. In many cases, the common author is a correspondent or an average person sending in articles to a paper. Journalism as a career is still in its early infancy here in Saudi Arabia, and very few people make a living as a full-time reporter. In many cases, even with the English-language papers, people with high-level connections or known names are more likely to be published than people holding actual degrees in journalism or who are known as professional reporters.
That said, the industry is quickly growing, and with it a higher standard of quality and professionalism will likely come. As the Kingdom builds more and more universities and as the majors they offer expand away from the sciences and into the humanities such as journalism, the amount of professionally trained writers and reporters is bound to increase. The reporter we talked to expressed much optimism about the growth of the industry, saying that its continued development will likely bring about a more intelligent and knowledgeable society. Of course, while this can be seen in its beginning stages now, the industry actually thriving and many journalists entering the field is a reality that is likely years, if not decades, away.
We touched some on what the Saudi press reports about, and what it is allowed to report about. Censorship is an issue in Saudi Arabia, and all reporters know that there are some subjects which are simply red lines not to be crossed. Any article reporting on these issues will likely not be published, for it is worried that putting these issues into a forum of discussion will undermine societal integrity and stability. Still, the reporter said, the Saudi press has been given considerably more leeway in what it is allowed to discuss and report on in the last decade or so, and now openly reporting on issues such as spousal or child abuse, women driving, and the troublesome state of Saudi infrastructure is the norm. In this way, the Saudi press serves as a sounding-board for the Saudi people, allowing them to read and talk about issues in a way that the absence of civil society had prevented them from doing so before. Perhaps, if Saudi society does indeed become more open and willing to tolerate discussion of issues, the media will play a more important role in facilitating that discussion.
We also discussed the overall character of the Saudi media. According to the reporter, Saudis often don’t get their news from the television, unlike Americans, but rather most frequently from the newspaper. It is because of this that newspapers and the written press play such an important role in providing Saudis with information and with facilitating a discussion of issues. However, as is the case in the United States, there is a growing media presence online, and there is an increasing trend for the press to publish their articles and stories online as well as in print. The Saudis are per capita the most connected people online, using Facebook and other forms of social media the most of any society, and this has only helped facilitate this push to put the news online. That said, Saudis are apparently not willing to pay for online subscriptions to news, preferring to find free sources instead. Because of this, the printed paper will likely remain an important source of the news longer than it will here in the United States, where it is gradually disappearing.
Our talk with the reporter was really interested, and provided us with insights into the current state of the Saudi press. The media is an important part of any society, and that is obviously the case here. Though the media also reflects the limitations and constraints of Saudi society, its gradual evolution parallels the evolution of this society. I hope to continue to read the Saudi newspapers and bring some home with me, so that others can see their frequent and their equally frequent failures.