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The trouble with official spokespersons in Saudi Arabia - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat – In recent years the Saudi press has grown accustomed to pursuing official government spokespersons by various ways and means, incurring many hardships in order to obtain a response to their inquiries. It is therefore not surprising that many official spokespersons are committed to utilizing the tactic of “evasive silence” when responding to any questions put to them by the press, whilst also relying on bureaucratic red-tape in this regard.

Such criticisms continue to surround these “silent” official spokespersons today, to the point that some media figures and journalists have begun to actively seek out officials in order to express their displeasure and pass on complaints against their spokespersons, in an attempt to force these official spokespersons to issue statements and respond to press inquiries. In addition to this, the continuation of this state of affairs means that journalists believe that the appointment of an official spokesperson is akin to a “do not approach” warning sign around an official, namely that all inquiries must be made through this official spokesperson.

Editor-in-Chief of Saudi Arabia’s “Al-Madina” newspaper, Dr. Fahd Aal Aqran informed Asharq Al-Awsat that official spokespersons can be split into two camps, those who are very active, and those who play a negative role.

In a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Dr. Aqran said “for example, the Saudi Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Justice have been very successful because the official spokespersons there respond to the media and provides accurate and correct information to the press, particularly as the absence of information is the primary reason for newspapers and the media being embarrassed.”

He added that some governmental apparatus – whether ministries or subsidiary bureaus – include media centers who play a negative role, providing information to the press very late. He said that these media centers deal with the press in a “traditional” manner and that journalists’ must exert great effort in order to obtain any information from them.

Dr. Aqran also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that some official spokespersons complain that they do not possess the information that they should and so are therefore unable to brief the press. He stressed that it is critically importance to find senior spokespersons – who enjoy more authority – and who are therefore able to talk quickly with the press.

He added “the majority of official spokespersons in Saudi Arabia fail to provide the information to the press in the required manner, or they depend solely on the method of denial with regards to any press inquiries. This has created genuine suffering between all those in the press and the government sectors with regards to accessing the news.”

The Al-Madina editor also revealed that official spokespersons want the information in their possession published in the press and read by newspapers’ readers, particularly as the majority of this information is publicity. He added that these official spokespersons usually send this promotional information to the press in a special manner which is far removed from answering questions or issuing clarifications about this information, which has weakened the trust between the media and the official spokespersons.

Dr. Aal Aqran also stressed the necessity of journalists being able to contact official spokespersons working in all state sectors, on the condition that these spokespersons are granted complete authority to communicate with the press and who can also, at the same time, be held accountable for their statements, particularly as some of these statements or comments may be inaccurate.

He added “we have taken note of the lack of clarity of official spokespersons even with regards to positive news, despite the presence of official directives to activate their roles. This is not to mention the importance of providing these official spokespersons with training and putting the right man in the right place…this is something that we must convince officials of in light of the inability of the press to wait for information for a long time.”

Saudi journalist Ahmed Al Othman, who works at the Al-Hayat newspaper, revealed that he continues to find it difficult to locate a sufficiently qualified official spokesperson, due to the fact that most official spokespersons do not have full authority to provide the press with information.

Othman told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the majority of official spokespersons communicate what their department wants published in the media, but they do not want to talk about some events that may require follow-up [questions] by the press because they do not have the green light to talk about this in front of journalists.”

He described official spokespersons working in government apparatus as a defensive “shield” to protect officials from embarrassing themselves with the media in general. He stressed the necessity of official spokespersons possessing a high degree of skills and professionalism, which can be acquired via media and public relations training courses. He also said that official spokespersons should be appointed from within the media, as this would allow them to understand professional journalists, particularly in light of their general ignorance of this.

He added “official spokespersons, particularly those working in sensitive departments whose dealings are not linked to a specific time, should be present at all times in order to respond to press inquiries in full.”

As for the media’s lack of confidence in official spokespersons, Aal Othman told Asharq Al-Awsat that this stems from the fact that official spokespersons grant themselves sufficient time to decide what they want to say to the press, whilst they also give the precise same information or quotes to different journalists. He added that instead of this, journalists can obtain new and unique statements directly from the official the official spokesperson is representing, allowing a journalist to stand out from the rest of his colleagues.

For her part, Amal al-Hamdi, a journalist for the Saudi-based Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper, stressed that the work of many official spokespersons at government ministries is tied to their mood and the extent of their personal relationship with the journalist in question.

Al-Hamdi told Asharq Al-Awsat that “some ministries possess the correct culture with regards to the concept of an official spokesperson and as a result of this they have made great achievements with the media, whilst some sectors continue to believe that information in their possession is secret and the press has no right to know about this. In addition to this, they believe that the official spokesperson is nothing more than a connecting link between themselves and the media, without granting this spokesperson any authority.”

She added that some officials prefer to speak to the media directly, whilst others are reluctant to issue statements to the media, which means they use official spokespersons as a “pretext” not to deal with the media directly. Al-Hamdi also confirmed that journalists sometimes need to exert a lot of effort and spend a lot of time to obtain information from official spokespersons.

Al-Hamdi also claimed that “many of them [official spokespersons] lack smoothness in dealing with us as journalists, not to mention their own ignorance of the mechanism of their work; this requires a return to training on how to work with the media in the correct manner.”

Whilst official spokespersons responded to this criticism in a number of ways; some official spokespersons confirmed the need to air out the issues that have arisen between spokespersons and the media, whilst others have stressed that they do not hesitate to respond to press inquiries, so long as these are within work hours.

Dr. Sharee Al Bakmi, official spokesperson for the King Abdulaziz University [KAU] of Jeddah, acknowledged the existence of a misconception between official spokespersons and the media, as well as incorrect practices on the part of spokespersons that are largely ignorant of the objectives of the media message they have been entrusted with.

Dr. Al Bakmi told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the presence of official spokespersons is something that is in effect in global governments and large companies, as this spokesperson is there to facilitate the task of the journalist and quickly provide him with the information he is seeking, particularly as it may not always be possible to reach the official that this spokesperson is representing. This means that official spokespersons are an important means through which a journalist can obtain the information that he requires.”

He added “some official spokespersons withhold information from journalists, although they can no longer do this as this information now reaches the media before it reaches the official spokespersons themselves.”

The KAU spokesperson stressed that the concept of official spokespersons in Saudi Arabia remains a novel one for journalists and officials alike, which means that the relations between the three sides – officials, their spokespersons and journalists – needs restructuring in terms of what tasks official spokespersons are entrusted with. He added that at the present time, the entire focus is on official spokespersons.

Dr. Al Bakmi also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “there are many parties even now that do not understand the importance of official spokespersons, who should receive information before the official. This is something that has created misunderstandings, resentment of journalists, and spokespersons being placed in embarrassing positions against the backdrop of their lack of knowledge of all the information.” The KAU spokesperson stressed the need for each side to understand the importance of the other.

He also considered officials who curtail their official spokespersons and prohibit them from commenting on any negative information as failing to live in the present era. Dr. Al Bakmi said “we are now in a position where we must put the truth in front of the public opinion and clarify any confusion, for what is required from us is not insinuations or only highlighting the positives, rather we must clarify the truth, in all its aspects.”

For his part, Saudi Labour Ministry spokesman, Hetab al-Anzi, revealed that he receives more than 30 telephone calls a day from different journalists. He added that he sometimes receives calls from 7 different journalists working at the same newspaper, each asking him about a separate issue or story.

Al-Anzi told Asharq Al-Awsat “the problem that many journalists have is their belief that the official spokesperson has no other tasks other than answering their inquiries, in addition to this they want these inquiries answered immediately.”

He added that sometimes when official spokespersons give direct statements to the press, they are surprised when this information is not published accurately. He said that this was due to a lack of diligence on the part of journalists, or mix-ups in the editing process before the article’s publication.

The Saudi Ministry of labour spokesman stressed “I do not distrust serious journalists or the press and its objectives, for there must be real complete cooperation between the two parties [spokespersons and the media].”

Al-Anzi also clarified that official spokespersons are not aware of everything, especially since some ministries have many specializations and departments, which requires the spokesperson to refer to the competent authority in order to provide accurate, clear and correct information.

He added “every apparatus has its policies and approach to work with regards to official spokespersons, as for our ministry, it is in direct contact with all segments of society.”

Al-Anzi also stressed the necessity of spokespersons distinguishing themselves with regards to their experience, intellect, and knowledge of the operations of their ministry, not to mention the importance of journalists accurately transferring the information and statements provided to them by official spokespersons.