Sheikh Saleh al-Hussein, President-General of the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques and Secretary-General of the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue, attacked and criticized the Saudi local press at the first meeting of Saudi judges that took place recently. Sheikh al-Hussein said “the recklessness and indifference of the press did a great deal of harm to the Kingdom.” Sheikh al-Hussein voiced this harsh criticism while addressing a group of Saudi judges.
Sheikh al-Hussein’s criticism of Saudi journalism naturally provoked a reaction from the media. His discussion touched on the nature of the relationship between judiciary and the media, the concept of the judiciary’s complete independence and whether this means the judiciary should not be subject to media scrutiny and whether the media should even be covering or reporting on [active] judicial cases. Sheikh al-Hussein cited the west, asking if this happened there.
This is a highly controversial issue with specialized details, but from what we see and read in the western media, it appears that there are stories that the media feeds off and covers extensively. A good example of this was the case of O.J. Simpson who was accused and then acquitted of murdering his ex-wife. People all across the world followed the smallest details of this case whilst it was being tried in court. Sheikh al-Hussein said that the judiciary could be fallible, and that in the US during President Carter’s administration dozens of death sentences were carried out against people who were later proved to be innocent. This cannot be denied for in the end there is nobody on earth, whether an individual or a party, that is not fallible. To err is human. However the question is, where did Sheikh al-Hussein get his information about the failings of the US judiciary? Did he not get this from the US media itself?
The truth is that it is impossible to restrain the media with regards to what it chooses to report or not report. Even if you manage to place limits on some newspapers or satellite television channels, you will never be able to do this with the internet and SMS text messaging. This is an idea that belongs to the past.
The best thing for any official to do is to deal with the media rather than trying to ignore or attack it for news, stories, and information are the media’s lifeblood. Let us take for example Prince Turki al-Faisal’s handshake with the Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon. Should news of this have been hushed up or silenced under the pretext of not creating confusion or distorting Saudi Arabia’s position in the eyes of the Arab street? I do not think that anybody today would subscribe to this belief.
Rather than attacking the media for reporting stories of cases being heard in court, it would be better to call for more transparency and access to information for public circulation. This would certainly cut down the amount of wrong information reported on cases being heard at court. The privacy of those involved in these court cases, and information that might affect the course of justice and any other such considerations, must also be taken into account.
It would be better if the official spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, or any other related body, talked with the media rather than entering into a war of words with the press.
In any case, there is no doubt that the judicial authorities have their protection and status, but we must learn the boundaries of this protection and the features of this status so that the media is able to operate within these boundaries. This would initiate a far more mature and direct dialogue about this issue, particularly as Sheikh Saleh al-Hussein is well-aware of the benefits of dialogue in his position as the Godfather of the vessel National Dialogue.