One story, two different takes – How Saudi Gazette is reporting and Arab News isn’t

One story has dominated Saudi media for the past week, the tragedy of 13-year-old Reham Al-Hakami who contracted HIV through a mistaken blood transfusion at a government-run hospital in the south of the country (I’ll cover this story and the outcry it has caused in a blog-post soon).

However, reading the English-language press today is a confusing affair. If you pick up Saudi Gazette, you’ll find not one piece but two on Reham. The first is a news item about another Saudi woman who has contracted AIDS. The second is a scathing opinion piece from the paper’s Arabic-language sister publication Okaz written by columnist Khaled Al-Sulaiman.

The column, which was first published in the Arabic-language daily Okaz, was rerun in Saudi Gazette

The column, which was first published in the Arabic-language daily Okaz, was rerun in Saudi Gazette

And then there’s the main piece on the Ministry of Health in Arab News, which focuses on a letter from the King thanking “the Health Minister Dr. Abdullah Al-Rabeeah and for obtaining certificates from the US-based Joint Commission International (JCI) for 15 medical facilities and accreditation from the Central Board of Accreditation for Healthcare Institutions (CBAHI) for 50 hospitals over the past 12 months.”

And here is the main piece on the Ministry of Health from Arab News. There's a second article covered, which is also not related to Reham

And here is the main piece on the Ministry of Health from Arab News. There’s a second article covered, which is also not related to Reham

I know which newspaper I’d rather be reading today. The team at Saudi Gazette and its owners should be praised for their editorial integrity and coverage of the issue.

Incidentally, Arab News is known as the Green Truth owing to the colour of its front and back pages and the quality of its copy. While the colour print hasn’t changed there’s been a noticeable shift in editorial since Khaled Al Maeena left at the end of 2011. During those two years Arab News has had two editors-in-chief (Abdulwahab Al-Faiz and now Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi) and has lost staff to Saudi Gazette. I for one hope that Arab News receives the investment and political backing from its owner SRMG that the newspaper needs to compete editorially with Saudi Gazette.

Who controls the message? The case of #Qatif and official Saudi policy

“May you live in interesting times”. That ancient Chinese proverb is a favourite, and never has it rung truer than today for anyone who lives in the Middle East.

The past 18 months has completely changed our region. Few have been immune to the changes that have swept the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia. During this time so many taboos have been broken. As a media junkie and former journalist what has been most striking is how people are now controlling the message themselves through the use of the internet.

For decades governments in the region controlled the news agenda. Saudi Arabia’s news channels, both television and newspapers, are all state-controlled. The use of satellite dishes was illegal (I can’t ever remember reading any official announcements legalizing satellite dishes in the country) and all foreign publications imported into the country were censored with a black pen. Anything that was critical was either black penned, ripped out of the magazine or newspaper, or, in the worst case, the publication would be banned.

What has happened over the past 18 months has changed this perception. For reasons that I’m not going to go into on this blog post – I’m only focusing on the communications aspect rather than the politics – various events have taken place in Qatif, in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Region. There have been several incidents of late in Qatif. What is remarkable is how those who are protesting in Qatif are using Youtube to spread their message. Previously, they never had any means to tell their story. To see how that has now changed, look at the below.

The above video has been viewed 160 thousand times in the space of two days. What is just as remarkable is the channel where this is hosted on Youtube. The channel’s name is Qatif News Channel, and videos are uploaded daily.

The Qatif News channel is hosted on Youtube and has been viewed over 200,000 times since it was set up on February 9th 2012.

This media is being used to tell a story that is feeding global media, such as this report by Al Jazeera.

Confronted with today’s ability to collect content, upload it to the internet and distribute that media, there’s little that official media or policy can do apart from run editorials condemning such actions. The below is from the English-language Saudi Gazette and sums up media reactions in the Saudi press.

Maintain public peace, Al-Qatif sheikhs tell youth was the standard line in many Saudi media publications.

The question faced by governments is how do they regain control of media channels and ensure that their message is heard loud and clear? There’s no going back, there’s no closing down the internet (Egypt’s Mubarak tried and failed). Some governments have become media-savvy and are now creating their own content for distribution online. A rumour circulated last year that Saudi’s King Abdullah had bough Facebook to stop the Arab Spring. Maybe someone wasn’t joking when they suggested buying Facebook?

No, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah did not offer to buy Facebook for $150 billion.

Link

ImageThe past couple of months have been unusual for the Kingdom’s English language media sector. First, Saudi’s leading English language newspaper by circulation appointed a new Editor-in-Chief Abdulwahab Al-Faiz in October 2011. Al-Faiz, who was previously Editor-in-Chief of the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Eqtisadiah, replaced the long-standing incumbent Khaled AlMaeena.

Since then, Arab News has changed some of its print layout and pulled more news from Arabic-language newspapers particularly those owned by its publisher the Saudi Research & Publishing Company. Al-Faiz was known at Al-Eqtisadiah for increasing advertising revenues through supplements and special reports.

AlMaeena has been associated with Arab News for over twenty years. He built the editorial team. For many reader AlMaeena was the newspaper, he was as much Arab News as Arab News was him. Even after he’d left the Arab News in October of last year, AlMaeena still held the title of Editor at Large for Arab News (even on Wikipedia he’s still listed as their Editor-in-Chief).

The announcement of AlMaeena as the Saudi Gazette’s Editor-in-Chief two weeks ago was a shock to many. However, the decision by Okaz, the publisher of the Saudi Gazette, may be a masterstroke. In many ways AlMaeena is just as much of a brand as is the Arab News. He has always supported issues associated with the expatriate community in Saudi Arabia, especially Asians.

In those two weeks at the helm of Saudi Gazette AlMaeena has already hired a number of his team. The ex-deputy Editor at Arab News Somayya Jabarti and Laura Bashraheel among others are now plying their trade at Saudi Gazette. I for one hope that AlMaeena keeps doing what he does best, namely focusing on editorial quality and running stories that are in the interest of the expatriate community. Already people have been writing into the newspaper wishing AlMaeena and his team success.

A letter written by a Saudi Gazette reader from Toronto congratulating AlMaeena and his team on the news of their appointment at the newspaper.

So what now for the Arab News? For me, it wasn’t a natural decision to appoint Al-Faiz who had never edited an English-language paper. The announcement hinted at the publisher wanting to increase advertising and other non-advertising revenues. The danger to Arab News is that with a lack of good editorial their readership numbers will fall, and consequently their advertising revenues.

My other hope is that Saudi Gazette will start adopting more social media channels to promote the newspaper. AlMaeena is a social media enthusiast who has embraced Twitter. Let’s hope that the bold move by Okaz will raise the standard of English-language media in Saudi Arabia. I can’t wait to see what AlMaeena and his team do at the Saudi Gazette.

PS for a fascinating insight into Khaled AlMaeena by one of his Arab News writers, read this blog post by Siraj Wahab

To #socialmedia or not to social media – #Gulf newspapers say yes, Gulf governments say no

The last twelve months have been a defining year for social media across the Middle East. Citizen journalism has flourished. Most of the mainstream media publications have also adopted or begun to adopt social media as another channel to reach the general public.

The first adopters were media outlets in the UAE, particularly those who were already well established digital media. You have the likes of arabianbusiness.com who tweet at @ArabianBusiness – the site has over 27,000 tweets and 13,000 followers on Twitter and almost 3,500 likes on Facebook. Dubai’s largest English-language newspaper Gulf News which tweets at @gulf_news, has over 21,000 followers on Twitter. Abu Dhabi’s The National has a number of prolific social media users on its writing staff, including @ben_flanagan…

…and @amna_alhaddad

Interesting for those based outside of the UAE is how media re now turning to Twitter and Facebook. Saudi’s largest English-language publication, the Arab News, has long had a Facebook site. Arab News has more likes than Arabian Business. Rival publication Saudi Gazette has a Twitter feed on its site, and recently launched its Twitter handle, @TheSaudiGazette, last month.

Similarly in Bahrain, its largest English-language newspaper the Gulf Daily News now has Twitter and Facebook aggregator tools on every newspage. We’ll doubtless see more media using social networks to reach a wider audience.

While the Gulf’s media is moving ahead with social media, the region’s governments are clamping down on what could be termed anonymous social media users probably due to the role that social media has played in the Arab Spring.

Bahrain was the first to propose legislation. The country’s parliament discussed new punishments for cybercrime that include 10-year prison sentences and fines of up to 300,000 Bahraini Dinars. Kuwait and UAE are following suit. Both countries have questioned and/or detained bloggers of late for varying reasons. One article this week in Kuwait’s media suggested that the country could ban anonymous social media activity.

UAE officials have suggested that anyone caught using social media ‘irresponsibly’ will be punished.

Will the drive to regulate social media in the Gulf work? Can’t wait to find out!