Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- The freedom offered by the world wide web has led some journalists to take advantage of online media in order to write without being subject to censorship, especially as online media is not subject to the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information regulations, unlike their print counterparts.
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Abdullah Balbeid, who owns the Arabic Sho3a3 news website, said that setting up an online publication is a personal and financial venture between the seller [the online media] and the buyer [the viewer] rather than between organizations, as is the case with print media.
Balbeid said that owners of news media websites attempt to present news content in a manner that the printed press is unable to due to the presence of censorship. He also confirmed that the freedom offered by online publications is attractive to anybody who wants to write without the fear of censorship or suppression.
However Balbeid told Asharq Al-Awsat “What is published online must be credible, especially as the reports are usually being published on websites whose owners are well known figures, and this makes them responsible for every single word [they publish].”
Balbeid added that prior to publication it is normal for the credibility of an internet article to be reviewed and discussed, particularly as a writer may lose his readership if he publishes false information or refuses to reveal his source.
On whether the online publication receives funding in the same manner as print media, Balbeid said that some newspapers have commercial deals with specific companies with regards to the sale of advertising space in order to finance their operations, while others just operate out of love of the medium [and forego advertising revenue].
He argued “Online media is currently different than printed media in this regard; there are some who work in a sound professional or business manner, while there are those who are only interested in the monetary rewards, and are not concerned about what they publish.”
Balbeid said that being published online opens up a wider audience to writers as the online media is currently more prevalent [than more traditional media], especially in the light of an individuals ability to use the internet to search for news themselves.
Fahd Saud, the Managing Editor of the Saudi online magazine Elaph, informed Asharq Al-Awsat that those working for this online publication all have professional contacts, and are provided with social, security, and medical insurance. He said that Elaph employees receives the same benefits that employees of official companies or newspapers receive
Fahd Saud informed Asharq Al-Awsat that in his opinion, online media is beginning to take its position in a clear way, and it has been able to impose itself [on the world]. This can be seen in the readership of online media, and the number of responses that articles published online receive. Saud also confirmed that the meeting that was held between the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information and official from the [Saudi] free online press is a good indication of the formation of a clear general framework [for online publication].
Saud also told Asharq Al-Awsat that online journalists operates around the clock, in comparison to print journalism which works to a deadline and has specified office hours, therefore what is published [in traditional media] becomes outdated with the passage of time.
He added “the rise of some online newspapers has given a negative view to what is published on the internet; this is due to them publishing news which lacks credibility, or news that is unconfirmed by sources.”
Saud also indicated that serious and thoughtful online media is valuable and credible, and this can be seen in satellite television channels and other media seeking to utilize this medium, due to its clarity and transparency.
Fahd Saud said the presence of freedom in the online arena gives writers the freedom to write, especially as this freedom is limited or is even non-existent due to the bureaucracy and the narrow scope for autonomy that exists in print media.
He added “the online journalist has been able to find for himself wide freedoms which helps with regards to creativity…in addition to possessing special tools that can be used in more freedom than in other [traditional media].”
Abdullah Balbeid called for the formation of a structure and a framework for online media, provided that this fully takes into account the differences between online media and more traditional forms of media.
Balbeid told Asharq Al-Awsat that online media has no means of being held accountable [for mistakes] and as a result of this online media must be certain of everything that it publishes. Balbeid said that the problem lies in the tight grip held by the print media, and its traditional framework which restricts freedoms, which in turn forces more and more writers to join online media.
A female journalist who previously wrote for online publications spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, saying that she no longer writes for online media as she is focusing upon being published in print media.
This journalist told Asharq Al-Awsat that there is no doubt that online media has a wider readership, not to mention the fact that online media is not subject to censorship, saying “I enjoyed this experience, and I wrote online under a pseudonym, particularly since I was working full-time for a [print] magazine at the same time” but she stopped online publication after readers began to connect her online work with the articles she published in the print magazine.
Moreover, a former administrator of a famous internet news website who preferred to remain anonymous and who no longer works in this medium told Asharq Al-Awsat that it is extremely difficult if not impossible to control online news websites, for a number of reasons, most notably the ease of creating new websites.
Commenting on the meeting of officials from the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information with the owners of certain online media websites, the source told Asharq Al-Awsat that many of these websites will lose their audience as a result of this meeting, as online media is different from its print counterpart, and it prefers to break from official restrictions, which is what the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information is attempting to apply to online media.
He also said that it takes time for new news websites to gain an audience, and therefore some resort to fabricating news stories in order to gain interest, and they promote these through e-mail campaigns in order to attract the highest possible number of readers.
The source also spoke about several websites posting write-ups of local news stories, or taking front page stories from print newspapers and posting them online, as well as writers who write for print media publishing their articles online without the knowledge of the print media, occasionally even before, the article is published in print.
The former editor-in-chief of the Saudi al-Watan newspaper, Tariq Ibrahim, who is currently serving as editor-in-chief of the “Anaween” e-journal said that in most country’s in the world government plays no part in the appointment of newspaper editors-in-chief, however he said that the governments in some Arab countries interfere in the selection process, which reduces efficiency and effectiveness.
Ibrahim told Asharq Al-Awsat that those working for private institutes that are not affiliated to governments are usually chosen according to such attributes as professionalism, experience and ability, and these are just some of the qualities required by any editor of any news media.
He also stressed that there is no system in the world, including in Saudi Arabia, whereby the government has any control of appointing editors-in-chief for online publications, especially as the owners of websites most usually serve as their editors.
He added “it is better for the Ministry of Culture and Information not to interfere in the appointment of [online media] employees or editors…so as not to be accused of interfering in the media.” He said that it is acceptable for online media to become under the legal umbrella of the Ministry of Culture which regulates the media on the condition that this does not affect the freedoms available in online media, and so long as there is no interference in the selection of editors.
On the mechanism of how articles are published online, the editor of the “Anaween” e-journal said that this varies from one publication to another, and there are some that allows direct publication of articles without them being scrutinized or reviewed by editors, while others have stricter requirements, such as articles going from a draft stage, being approved by an editor, and finally being approved for publication.
Ibrahim said that the biggest obstacle to the success of online editors is the scarcity of professional journalists writing in the online media, and the poor financial proceeds from online media. However he pointed out that every media – whether it is print or online media – has its own specific advantages and disadvantages. For example online media is characterized by the fast delivery of news, and greater freedom.
Ibrahim also confirmed that opinions were exchanged between the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information officials and the online press during the most recent meeting between the two parties, particularly with regards to what the Ministry can provide to the online media.
For his part, Abdul-Rahman al-Hazza, Undersecretary for the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information also confirmed that meetings were taking place between these two parties in order to develop a specific mechanism for online media, although nothing has been implemented so far.
Al-Hazza informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “The Ministry [of Culture and Information] attempted to seek the views of employees of online media to gather information and begin the development of a system for it” however he indicated that this remains a proposal only, and nothing official has been decided.
Abdul-Rahman al-Hazza also spoke about the “thorny” issue of some online media encroaching upon the intellectual property rights of some print newspapers, pointing out that a system of copyright does exist in Saudi Arabia, but this system excludes what is published in newspapers, magazines, periodicals, and daily news announcements.
A lawyer and adviser for the [Saudi] copyright system, Qaisar Motawa, said that in Saudi Arabia the right to sue online media for what they publish online exists with regards to articles published without the written permission of their authors. Outside of Saudi Arabia, Motawa said that such cases are prosecuted under local laws, and sanctions for copyright infringement [abroad] includes a warning, a fine of no more than 250,000 Saudi Riyals, the closure of the online media for two months, and even imprisonment for a term that does not exceed 6 months.
Motawa also confirmed the existence of a committee affiliated to the Ministry of Culture and Information to deal with copyright issues, and this committee has the right to approve financial compensation in cases of defamation and infringement.
Motawa called for accuracy in the online media’s news reporting, especially as this may adversely affect the subject of the news if the information reported is incorrect, and it is within the right of any person to sue for monetary compensation if false news is published about them.