Jewish World Review June 12, 2003 / 12 Sivan, 5763

Jim Hoagland

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The Limits Of Saudi Openness


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Telling lies in print gets a journalist fired in the United States. But speaking the truth can bring the same fate in Saudi Arabia, as reformist editor Jamal Khashoggi was reminded recently.

The practices of journalism are under a global microscope in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, the listing flagship that the Sulzberger family struggles fiercely (if belatedly) to right. Hunting season is now open on the hunters.

One of Britain's outstanding newspapers, the Guardian, found itself embarrassed last week by what some readers saw as the too-hot pursuit of a politically convenient but bogus report about the Bush administration's motives in Iraq. The Guardian quickly acknowledged error -- up to a point.

Rigorous self-scrutiny is still alien to too many media organizations in the United States and abroad, especially in countries where politics and journalism are frequently life-or-death matters. I tip my hat to colleagues who endure hardship and danger to tell what they can despite censors and death threats.

But the shortcomings and blockages in the flow of information in the developing world become more apparent and more important with the global revolution in communications. Understanding the internal dynamics and strains of "news" gathering in partially or wholly closed societies -- and even in societies where stereotypes have taken such deep root that they shape what is presented as fact -- is a vital survival skill in the Internet era.

This is particularly true today for the Arab world, as the Bush administration deepens U.S. involvement and interest there through its occupation of Iraq, its support of political reform in Arab dynasties and its mediation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The firing of Khashoggi as editor of the newspaper Al-Watan in late May offers a glimpse into the problem. In the wake of 5/12, as some Saudis call the terror bombings last month that killed at least 35 people in Riyadh, Khashoggi launched a sustained campaign in his newspaper to denounce extremism and religious intolerance. "We were trying to shed light on local causes of extremism" and their links to terrorism, he told me in a telephone conversation.

Khashoggi's articles ran parallel to the messages delivered to foreign governments and publics by official Saudi spokesmen, who emphasize the kingdom's sudden new awareness of the dangers of terrorism and its commitment to reform.

But when Al-Watan made the same points in articles and provocative cartoons to Saudi readers in Arabic, religious conservatives demanded Khashoggi's ouster -- and quickly got it. The official messages about Saudi Arabia opening up were further undermined when Khashoggi's firing, and death threats directed at him, were scarcely mentioned in the Saudi media. You now know more about this episode than do most Saudis.

There has also been a general silence in Arab media on the May 27 dismissal of Mohammed Jasim al-Ali as director of al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite television network based in Qatar. Ali was removed after the discovery in postwar Baghdad of documents describing payments to his organization by the Iraqi regime during Saddam Hussein's reign.

The Sunday Times of London broke the story about the payoffs. Le Monde then reported that al-Jazeera's own staff had its suspicions about Iraqi influence-buying at the top. But al-Jazeera launched no public explanation or review. The ouster was again a non-story where it occurred.

A different, more subtle problem of media imperfection surfaced on the Guardian's Web site on June 4. In a citation that originated with Germany's Die Welt, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was quoted as claiming that Washington had gone to war because Iraq "swims on a sea of oil." Pentagon critics quickly winged that item around the globe on the Internet. But the Guardian soon established what Wolfowitz had actually said -- that because Iraq "floats on a sea of oil," economic pressure could not work there -- and pulled the item from the Web site. In the newspaper's June 7 edition, an ombudsman focused on translation and hasty editing as factors in the egregious error.

But that error also neatly fits into the stereotypes of Wolfowitz and the administration's motivations in Iraq put forth for months by the Guardian's editorialists, the German media at large and critics in the United States. With that picture firmly in mind, the original story seems to have been "too good to check" for too many.

With all their imperfections, American news organizations still must answer to those readers and viewers who demand that reporters, editors and broadcast producers tell it like it is, or be held accountable when they don't. That's one U.S. trait that should spread around the world.

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06/09/03: Energized on Foreign Policy
06/02/03: Clarity: The Best Weapon
05/27/03: Talk plus muscle on North Korea
05/22/03: The war isn't over
05/19/03: Europe on its own
05/14/03: Globalization's evil offspring
05/12/03: No time for mixed messages
05/05/03: The case for patience on North Korea
04/30/03: Eroding Principles
04/28/03: Wars tailor made
04/25/03: De-Baathification, root and branch
04/21/03: Victims of civic passivity
04/14/03: Three miscreants
04/11/03: Saddam's final mistake

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