The former editor-in-chief of As-Sharq newspaper, he moved to the paper after a period as deputy editor and then editor of Al-Watan. In addition to his work as an editor, over the years his writing has appeared in Asharq Al-Awsat, Al-Hayat and Arrajol magazine, while his investigative pieces were published online at Elaph.
Jaseer spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about his approach to journalism, his thoughts on the state of the industry in Saudi Arabia, and the qualities needed to succeed in the field.
Q: How did you begin your career? Was there a moment when you knew for certain that you had made the right choice in switching from the Internet to television and then to the print media?
Journalism did not use to recognize the youth. The papers were jumbled and could only be read haphazardly. The magazine Yamamah was different, it was selective and made an effort to properly deal with its material. After [I worked on] the news site Elaph, I moved into television. In my opinion, the work of a journalist is to build on the foundation. The skill is to simply adapt its shape to the medium.
Q: What was the first story you worked on, and when was it published or broadcast? Do any of the other stories you’ve covered in your career stand out in your mind?
Honestly, I do not remember. I am neglectful in this respect and do not keep copies of my work. But I remember the reports in Asharq Al-Awsat on the Janadriyah festival, because it was my first experience having a feature turned down. I had written it at Al-Hayat in the first month after I joined, but the newspaper blocked for months until it finally came under investigation.
Q: What was your most successful news story?
In Saudi Arabia, the standards [of success] are unclear. Just because a story receives a lot of publicity does not mean that it is a strong one. Even though I would argue that I have put great effort into many investigate reports, there was one article that was written with a lot of sarcasm about Saudi women and marrying foreigners and, ten years after its publication, many people I meet still remind me of that story, which saddens me. It makes me think that journalism in Saudi Arabia is a mysterious path, like Sufism.
Q: But is there a news story or investigative piece that embarrasses you, for example?
There was a report on drugs that we published in Elaph. The problem lies in understanding investigative journalism in Saudi Arabia. Investigation is outlining and exploring an idea. You do not preach or use rhetoric. You review the information and expose the details, and this process is near to my heart.
The best conversations I had were during my time at Al-Rijal were with the prominent figures Prince Khalid Al Faisal Al Saud and Saud Abdulaziz Al-Gosaibi.
Q: Who was your role model when you began working as a journalist?
Nobody, for two reasons: first, Saudi journalism did not have any star professionals, though it had good articles, and second, I entered journalism through literary and cultural criticism.
Q: Who are your media role models today, locally and internationally?
Again, no one. I did not learn journalism from a particular person, and I did not receive training from anyone. But I like [Elaph founder] Othman Al-Omeir, because he was the first figure to make a difference in journalism. I also appreciate the rational professionalism of [editor-in-chief of Al-Arabiya] Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed. [TV show host and journalist] Daoud Al-Sheryan is a magician in the Saudi press, as well as [Editor-in-chief of Al-Ruiya] Mohamed Al-Tonsi.
Q: How many hours do you work a week? Do you feel that you are able to spend enough time with your family?
It depends on the medium. In television, it is no less than 16 hours. In daily news, around 12 hours, but without weekends. The media is constantly engaged in events all around the world. Journalists do not have a moment to stop and follow up, make connections, compare, or even train, or else the spirit of journalism would be betrayed. My wife is always asking me to leave the media because the anxiety, responsibility and pressure doesn’t stop. But I am blessed like everyone else to leave work at a set time, and I have a standard weekend. So I tell my wife that I am addicted to this profession and do not know what else to do. It is my fate, whether good or bad.
Q: What is your opinion of new media? Do you think it will replace old media?
I am against calling it “new media,” because it is not yet a media. Its level of discourse does not match professional journalism, in terms of its content, originality or responsibility. If the media were a classroom, then this so-called “new media” is a space for students to play and make noise.
Some think that Twitter and other websites and television have ended print media because of their speed and reach. But if we consider new media as only Twitter, it would be a world of lies and rumors—which is the case for many websites.
Q: What blogs or websites do you follow?
For Saudi news, I follow Al-Arabiya, Sabq and Al-Mowaten [two online newspapers] on a daily basis. Otherwise, it depends on the case. Sometimes I follow blogs or websites to see local responses and interactions in Syria or Iraq. Other than that, I visit sites randomly or at the recommendation of a friend to read about a particularly interesting subject.
Q: To what extent do you believe in the need for specialization in journalism?
The journalist is a specialist, and he would not be so if he were not proficient in his field. But if the pressure is to be an academic, then I am against it entirely, because they ruin the press— particularly in Saudi Arabia.
Q: What should a journalist do to achieve a high level of professionalism?
The first requirement is a good working environment. The place must have proper equipment and facilities, high professional standards, and provide the journalist with safety and security. As for the journalist himself, common sense is the most important [attribute], because although you can train a novice, it is impossible to manufacture a journalist [from nothing]. From there, the requirements of a good journalist are many. He must be precise and he must have the persistence of a debt collector, the perseverance of someone who can keep secrets, and the ingenuity of an investigator. He has to be able to inquire and survey, and he must know how to clean his article of [irrelevant] fluff. He must also be objective and impartial, and he must be self-disciplined and not just follow his desires.
Q: What are you reading these days, and what kind of books do you usually buy?
That is a hard question. I read as much as I can. Right now I am reading Love Stories on Al-Asha Street, The Forty Rules of Love, Belief and the Struggle for Power in Iran, the novel The Road to Mecca, Folded Pages from Our Modern Arab History by Khalil Rawwaf, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I am reading for the tenth time as a farewell to [Gabriel García] Márquez.
I often read books that were hard to obtain in Saudi Arabia. For those I went to the King Abdul Aziz Library, the King Fahd National Library and the King Saud University Library, but I could not buy them. After the relaxation of censorship regulations and the move away from an obsession with confiscation, the books that have interested me the most deal with political Islam. Other than that, I mostly read biographies, novels, and books on history, philosophy and sociology.
Q: What is your favorite sport or hobby?
My hobbies are sporadic, and all of them are incomplete projects, as is the case for many Saudis. But I take the utmost pleasure in the laziness of travel, where one can rebel against standardized time, get rid of commitments, and live in an environment free of “creative chaos.”
Q: What tips would you give young journalists?
I tell all young journalists that it does not matter whether you are young or old, it matters whether your work is good or not. So build your character on vision, wonder and uniqueness. Stay away from uninteresting journalism, which will turn you into an employee, and avoid the culture of social literature. Let your weapons be confidence and courage, and know that hatred for bureaucracy and hidebound practices is the first step, since they are the enemies of change and innovation. Know that seniority is not always a privilege, but may also be a disappointment. Be like scientists busy with discovery and experimentation, and learn that the perspective of a journalist cannot be created [out of nothing] or borrowed. So refine your skills and master your journalistic tools, and you will produce meaningful, competitive work. Read everything. Compare different newspapers when following a story. Note the methods and content of every headline and story. The fundamentals of the profession are essential, so hold tightly to them regardless of trends.
Use your own language, because that is your true mark and everything else is false.