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Saudi writer defends media’s right to criticize Shura council

BBC Monitoring

ext of report by Saudi newspaper Al-Watan website on 22 October

[Commentary by Khalid al-Ghanami: "The Shura Council is not above criticism"]

I have read the two articles by Dr Abdallah al-Tuwayriqi, member of the Saudi Shura Council and former media science professor, which the newspaper Al-Watan published on Sunday and Tuesday of last week. Professor Al-Tuwayriqi launched a strong attack on the media, chief editors, and satellite television station directors and urged that the media be held accountable for criticizing the Shura Council's performance. He demanded that a law be passed to criminalize anyone who criticizes the Shura Council's members. He also urged that the Shura Council's sessions not be covered by the media. He finally demanded that the persons in charge of the media be summoned and instructed in the ABCs of media (parliamentary) work.

The grounds that Dr Al-Tuwayriqi offers for making these demands is that the Shura Council is one of the state's major institutions and as such should remain s! ecure from being touched by "media absurdities" and "dramatic debaucheries." He added that when the media criticize the Shura Council, this embarrasses it before the government and offends it in the public eye especially in the light of the fragility of the public's media awareness in our country and the people's inability to appreciate the council's efforts.

To tell the truth, I am astonished that Dr Al-Tuwayriqi should adopt such a position for he is after all a professor of media science. More than other people he should be aware that the media's basic mission is to report the news and provide the necessary information to the people. He should know that the people have the right to get this information. He should be aware that the fragility of the people's media awareness (if this accusation is true) can only be remedied by more reporting and analysis of the news by journalists, media personnel, and writers. They might be wrong sometimes but sometimes they are righ! t. As the people read, sift through the information, and begin to unde rstand, public awareness will be enhanced and the ignorance of which we are accused will be dispelled. This ignorance will not go away and awareness will not be enhanced if you close the doors to media coverage and if the writers and journalists are suppressed and prevented from carrying out their duty towards their society.

Dr Al-Tuwayriqi's demands go against the general current towards greater openness and reform in Saudi Arabia and the realization of greater progress in the sphere of public liberties and freedom of expression. It is the natural right of every human being to get the news and broadcast it through any media outlet without restrictions. This is the basic principle.

Criticizing government performance is not a crime but first and foremost a patriotic act. When a patriotic writer adheres to professional standards and ethics, he seeks to improve the performance of the state's institutions and serve the homeland's interests. The Shura Council is one o! f these institutions. For this reason no member of the council has the right to demand sanctity for it. Such sanctity would prevent any interaction between the council and the people, a fact that Dr Al-Tuwayriqi actually lamented in his remarks.

Dr Al-Tuwayriqi's demands will certainly not solve the problem but exacerbate the estrangement between the Shura Council and the public. We are at a stage when there is talk of a government plan to expand the Shura Council's powers, increase the number of its members, alter the way in which they are selected, and open up to the culture of popular participation through either electing all the members by popular vote or at least some of them. Such a plan requires an awareness of the importance of winning public support.

The Shura Council counts as a legislative body. It examines all legal documents, both domestic laws and international agreements and either approves or recommends that they not be passed. It has additional ! powers as noted in its statute. Therefore the council is supposed to a ct as a secure shield of freedom and human rights instead of an impediment to them. At this point we should point out that some important members of the council have had renowned stands in demanding support for the enlightenment and modernization drive in the country and showing understanding of the people's demands.

Regarding Dr Al-Tuwayriqi's demand to summon the persons in charge of the media to instruct them in the ABCs of media work, I wish to say that according to what I know, the Shura Council, based on its statute and the ABCs of parliamentary work in all countries, is a supervisory and legislative body only. It does not have the power to train or instruct media workers or any other group in how to do their work. Dr Al-Tuwayriqi might have the right to demand that the Shura Council's powers include the power to instruct journalists in the methods of their work. However, I fear that Dr Al-Tuwayriqi's ambition might reach the point of demanding that the Shura Cou! ncil be given the power to punish journalists if they criticize it after receiving those training courses.

Demanding that the media, journalists, and writers be punished signifies a regression to the Middle Ages and the Inquisition. It means pursuing the people and punishing them not for real crimes but because they are exercising their freedom of expression, which is supposed to be free and unshackled. It is astonishing that such demands should come from a man who originally was a media person and is now a Shura Council member. He is supposed not to be impatient of criticism. He is supposed to be a representative of the people, should represent their hopes and ambitions, and should demand that they be given their rights and needs.

Source: Al-Watan website, Abha, in Arabic 22 Oct 07



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