Nothing is being discussed more these days in Saudi Arabia than the disaster of the Jeddah floods. This can be clearly seen in newspaper articles, front page headlines, and news reports. Key satellite television stations have covered the disaster, and continue to broadcast the latest developments. However the fastest and boldest medium being used in this media contest is the internet and social networking sites such as Facebook as well as internet forums and even SMS text messages. Video clips [of the disaster] are also being circulated by people, but these do not appear on television screens or in the newspapers.
We are facing an event that cannot be exclusively monopolized by any single media in its presentation to the public. This is why the Saudi media response [to the Jeddah floods] was unusually quick and intense. This all began a few years ago when journalists, reporters, and editors began to surf the internet themselves, opening personal accounts on Facebook and other sites, and contributing to internet forums. This is not to mention those who perhaps began to write on websites about Saudi affairs under pseudonyms.
The media dealt with the news of the flooding of Jeddah’s streets, and the search for survivors and deceased – with the death toll today standing at 105 according to the Jeddah Civil Defense – in a new and different interactive manner. This could be seen in the media’s interactivity when dealing with the acute variables [of the disaster] and its stark pictures.
What happened in Jeddah was a humanitarian disaster, and what is even worse is that this is not yet over. Corpses are still being uncovered, houses have been abandoned, and families have been displaced to temporary accommodation as [many] properties have either been damaged or utterly destroyed. The images and video clips of this that can be seen on the YouTube website is testimony to this, and these clips have been filmed by members of the public for public consumption.
Those who read the reports that were, and continue to be, published in Saudi newspapers, will find a long “inventory” list of those responsible for this disaster. They can also find on the internet or in their email inboxes a lot of information that has not been mentioned in the newspapers, some of which is true and some of which is false. In the newspapers also, there are those who are honest and sincere in their criticism, while others are just trying to capitalize on this wave of public indignation. This is something that is perfectly normal, and takes place in every society in the world following a public disaster. The only silver lining to this unfortunate tragedy is that it has caused the officials to realize that they are under public scrutiny. The officials are now aware that there are eyes that see, ears that hear, hands that write, tongues that talk, and more importantly cameras that record events and broadcast them to the world.
This feeling of being monitored by the public is useful and inevitable. Without public scrutiny it is impossible [for officials] to maintain a good and productive performance. This does not discredit the intentions of public officials, but rather this is the correct recipe for a healthy and productive [public] environment. With public scrutiny, the task of the official is to prove himself and his administration to the public, and improve the limitations of his performance. Since no man is infallible, and since officials are human by nature, and because the impacts of their mistakes goes beyond them and affects other people’s interests, there should have been safeguards in place to prevent such mistakes from happening, along with a mechanism for punishment and reward, and the monitoring of [official’s] performance.
The name of these tools to monitor public affairs is not important, nor is it important who performs this role, and it is not important how this is looked at intellectually, legally, or politically; what is important is the existence of safeguards to increase the proficiency of public work and increase the public interest.
People’s feelings are heated, and they have a right to feel this way, and they have high hopes of getting to the bottom of this problem and are very eager to initiate this mechanism of reward and punishment. The idea is not to bring forth a scapegoat to face the public’s ire, but rather to put forward a courageous approach and practical solutions to the problem. This [problem] goes beyond the deadly floods that occurred in Jeddah, and rather is the poor service provided to the city, and this is a state of affairs that has existed for decades.
Something important is being forgotten in the midst of these heated emotions, which are particularly heated since [the Jeddah flooding] is still an open wound, and that is the fear that the public pressure and urgency for accountability is being used as a reason for quick decisions to be taken in order to calm this anger. However what is important is being open with the public in order to provide practical solutions even if these do not satisfy the feelings of those who are enraged [by the flooding], as by taking this time we will have time to debate and understand this. For example, this can be seen in the Egyptian and Algerian crisis that occurred due to the rioting following the football match in Khartoum, as Saudi Arabia is the country that thought with clarity despite the incitement of the satellite channels and newspapers.
There are advantages to the internet and members of the public directly communicating with other members of the public as this bypasses control and censorship and puts pressure on the concerned official. However there are also disadvantages to this, and the credibility of information cannot be verified, and material published by malicious individuals cannot be blocked, and neither can articles written by writers who are only seeking to promote their view or the view of a [political] party, or articles that simply express their writers anger. We have seen many such news articles on the internet, written by people with sick thoughts and personal hatred, but these become media articles and appear on hundreds of different sites and in thousands of emails, but none of this is any consolation to the victims.
But what should we do?
This is the reality of the internet, and we must deal with it in this format until those using it are able to tell the good from the bad, or until God says otherwise. It is up to the official to stand tall in the face of everything that the internet can throw at him, from exaggerations to lies and fabrications, and bet on the fact that in the end the truth will out.
The final issue, and this is one that deserves wider deliberation but will only be mentioned here in short, is the question that following the unfortunate Jeddah flooding, has Saudi Arabian society experienced new changes?
Has the internet become a real actor and important tool in forming public opinion and imposing the public agenda?
We do not know, but what we do know is that there is no alternative to providing an account of what happened, until Jeddah, the city of renewal and regeneration, returns to its customary form; an example of beauty and justice, and a home to all the people of Saudi Arabia, regenerating to new heights.