Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Friedman’s Syndrome in Swedish Public Service Coverage on Saudi Arabia

On the 3rd of Dec, Swedish Radio Middle East correspondent, Johan-Mathias Sommarström, spoke from The Saudi Media Forum in Riyadh, asserting that Saudi Arabia is definitely heading towards Liberalism. For a moment, it felt as kif John Locke and his fellow liberal philosophers were turning in their graves. Some western Journalists have been abusing the term liberal too much too often, in describing the alleged reforms that are taking place in the Kingdom. In violation of core principles of the liberal tradition, Saudi Arabia constantly denies and disregards the individual's right for political, economic and personal freedoms. Yet, Sommarström judged that the situation for women has drastically changed, based on merely observing women with loose head covers and the limited rights granted to them. 


Since the accession of the de facto King and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), a number of Swedish journalists and analysts are selling "flawed" reform image of the Kingdom despite its oppressive nature and heavy-handed approach. This presents a type of a journalistic symptom that can be coined as Friedman’s Syndrome – after the American journalist, Thomas Friedman, who fawned MBS and his policies in a NYT article back in 2017 and shared a lavish dinner with the crown prince and his inner circle. These types of journalists often perceive and explain Saudi Arabia through superficial dichotomies; exotic or familiar, ultra-conservative or liberal and so on. The syndrome is exacerbated by the fact that these journalists arrive at their bold conclusions by drawing from interviews that are almost exclusive to upper-middle class, English speaking Saudi people who are close or loyal to the regime. The result is a lack of a deeper understanding of the history of the country and the motives behind policies and change.   

As Sommarström was building his liberal arguments, he failed to mention the persistence of the Male Guardianship system. A system that until today could deny a woman all granted rights by the patriarch King if her male guardian submits a “disobedience report” to the police, which would warrant her arrest. Sommarström's uncritical statement on women’s rights also fails to address the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, one of the women’s rights campaigners who was detained in Abu Dhabi, whisked to Saudi Arabia and, later, thrown and tortured in jail for more than a year without due process or a free trial. 

The whole interview with Sommarström echoes orientalist attitudes, in which he made an unpalatable comparison between Saudi and nordic journalists, - based on the “idea of Europe”, identifying “us” Europeans/nordic (Sweden) against all “those” non-Europeans (Saudis), in this case. His talking point stressed his orientalist superiority to Arabians, which relies on “the acceptance in the West of the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, 'mind,' destiny and so on” as the great thinker Edward Said put it. Such an attitude may well explain the correspondent's bold claim that people/audience are not used to seeing “western” journalists confront the Saudi authorities. This claim ia false, knowing that the Saudi writer Jamal Farsi was jailed for trying to stand up to the regime during a public event.
The Saudi Media Forum was staged for two days as damage control to the regime public relation image following Jamal Khashoggi extraterritorially murdered in his country's embassy. Additionally, earlier on November 6th, two employees of Twitter were charged in the US for using their access to help Saudi Arabia spy on dissidents. The Saudi minister of media has explicitly said: “The Forum strives to market the Kingdom”. In sum, the regime continues to whitewash its image abroad and they do not shy away from reaffirming that purpose. 

Sommarström proves completely blind not only to the cost of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia but also to the writers who paid a very heavy price for challenging the Saudi authorities. The Swedish correspondent betrays decent ethical journalism and the struggle of all Saudi dissidents in exile when he claims that “small steps are slowly gearing towards the right direction”. He downplays the scale of oppression by stating that only 30 journalists were arrested in 2017 but not recently, which is not true. 

Contrary to Sommarström's claims, Saudi Arabia has waged a new wave of arrests, targeting Saudi writers - among them - Abdullah Al-Duhailan, Fahd Aba Al-Khail, Maha Al-Rafidi and a former blogger Fouad Al Farhan to name a few. The Well-known Al Watan Newspaper Columnist Saleh Al-Shihi was also arrested in 2018. Far from safeguarding the press in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom's local media is witnessing the worst times in its history. My former newspaper is but one of many that have sacked over 100 journalists in a short period of time. The limited space to criticise social issues has now vanished, writers and intellectuals continue to be forced to purge their blogs and twitter accounts to avoid arrest over their past views. Fear overshadows my former colleagues as they watch the regime brutishly handle even the mildest critics, while many are driven into silence. 
One thing that is common in covering Saudi Arabia in Sweden and other parts of the western world is that it is often the same experts who claim to know everything about the Kingdom, which is problematic. They claim to be experts on the biggest country in the Middle East. Being raised in the Saudi Kingdom, I would never dare to claim such merit. One must wonder how, despite the incredible amount of progressive forces and increased number of intellectual Saudis in exile, a Swedish former diplomat to Saudi Arabia drew from his
expertise to describe them with arrogant as drain without a brain in a public seminar in Stockholm.

Some Swedish correspondents and journalists remain such experts and they draw their legitimacy from the perception that “the one thing the orient could not do is to represent itself”. Therefore, I and many others from the region who sought protection in Sweden do not get adequate chance to voice our opinion in public broadcasting. Perhaps we are not seen as worthy perspectives, compared to Swedish journalists who allegedly know everything with such oversimplification about the Kingdom. Often our critical analysis, which provides alternative content and in-depth explanation, rather than mainstream rhetoric, is often reduced into a word from noisy activists or voices who lacks objectivity. While some Swedish journalists continue to spread uncritical reportings which are based on different short parachuting visits into the Saudi Kingdom. I would consider this a grave betrayal to the work of decent journalism. 

Ironically, I often was offered the chance to speak in Swedish public services during summer and Christmas holidays, where other Swedish declined to participate for being on vacation, but since I'm committed to a struggle that cannot afford vacations, I can then take the chance to speak. 


My former Saudi colleagues are concerned about the dramatic developments in the Kingdom more than ever. Many are planning to immigrate. However, a number of Swedish journalists remain desperate to indulge in news reporting on alleged miraculous changes that are emerging from Saudi Arabia at whatever cost. A Swedish public broadcasting reporter once requested from me with a patronising tone that I should express hope about the wind of change in the Saudi Kingdom. When I refused being told what to say, she described me as pessimistic. 


I wished if Sommarström took the opportunity in Riyadh to share substantial and informative stories on the history of co-opting local press in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Journalists Association in a country that reject unions' rights. Sommarström fails to address how Saudi Arabia has made mischief in the press of the region and globally.  So many relevant aspects were lost and reduced into orientalist or superficial accounts on the Saudi Media Forum in Riyadh.


The intervention of Sommarström at the Swedish public service was disturbing and disappointing. We activists and independent writers in exile are not offered equal space to share our unique knowledge about Saudi Arabia. However, nothing can stop us from exposing the Saudi king and the fact that we live in the era of an inquisition. MBS is ruling by fear, believing that he is the only one to have answers for everything. Swedish journalists parachuting down and excluding the voice of diverse and incredible Saudis who pay the price for their freedom of expression – those journalists end up colluding with this inquisition.

Lastly, I am aware that journalists are occupied with ego and sense of self-important. I wish from Swedish public broadcasting reporters and journalists would leave egocentric bias at the door as they read this article
 and take into account my views over the coverage on Saudi Arabia with humility. And let's remember "There can be no higher law in journalism than, to tell the truth, and to shame the devil".