JEDDAH, 5 May 2003 — Discussion about security issues should not be left to security professionals alone, because it relates to raising the awareness of all citizens to a level that may help prevent crime in the first place. The prevalent belief in Saudi Arabia is that security work must be confidential and hidden away from the press and public, and certainly from potential criminals lest the knowledge be abused and the message misunderstood. This attitude results in a general lack of awareness among the public when it comes to security issues and, consequently, an unsympathetic reaction to inconvenient police procedures.
The relationship between the police and the public in Saudi Arabia should be based on the public’s right to have credible information on the role the police play in providing a safer environment, and the reasons for the security measures that are inevitably going to impinge on a citizen’s privacy. The media’s coverage of security issues is a very useful and has the potential of providing both public understanding and more cooperation between citizens and the police.
Therefore, we should look at the need for an appropriate media strategy from two angles. First, security information should be a service which helps citizens protect themselves in close and friendly coordination with the police. And secondly, honesty in portraying security issues increases the people’s participation in helping the police reach their objectives. Being aware of these objectives and the procedures needed to reach them will improve public trust and cooperation, something that may be measured by the extent of their participation in preventing crimes, providing evidence and information, and actively joining the effort of catching criminals.
Print journalism has shown itself in Saudi Arabia to be more demanding and troubling to security officials than radio and TV have. Reporters complain about a lack of honesty and transparency when dealing with police sources. One reason for this press attitude might be the fact that Saudi dailies are not state-owned and run, as are local TV and radio. They do have, to a certain degree, independence when it comes to taking stands on social issues.
On the other hand, police officials complain that the press helps to encourage criminal and rebellious attitudes among the Kingdom’s young. A press insistent on publishing confidential details about a running investigation, say police officials, complicates it and thus helps criminals escape justice. A 1997 survey of Arab security officials’ attitude toward the press revealed that 88 percent of police officers in eight Arab countries agreed that the media is not doing its job in improving public awareness on security issues, while 3.2 percent believed that the media has negative effect when it came to security. To further explore the nature and dimensions of the troubled relations between police officers and journalists in Saudi Arabia specifically, I designed a questionnaire that dealt with the most pressing points of conflict and disagreement between the two parties, which was handed out in January and February 2000. The study sampled journalists from all Arabic and English publications in Saudi Arabia and officers of different levels and administrative and field specialties.
Police officers were asked to rank what press services they believe are the most important in helping police work and supporting security objectives. The majority said that explaining the social role of police was the most useful press function. Listed second was the contribution of the press to public awareness and enlightenment about police system and procedures. Covering crime and advising the public regarding safety procedures and crime prevention came lower down the list.
Saudi journalists were asked what the most difficult obstacles faced them in covering crime and dealing with police sources. It is clear from the results that top of the list was difficulty in obtaining police permission for interviews and to investigate crimes.
Second in the list came bureaucratic procedures. Third was the negative attitude of some police officers toward journalists. And there is confusion about information sources, since most police stations do not have official sources or public relations offices to deal with the press. The least of journalists’ concerns is knowing the red lines in publishing security news.
Both police officers and journalists agreed that the best way to improve their relations is to work hand in hand in formulating a media-police strategy that balances media and security needs and objectives.
Officers and reporters agree on the need for a media-security strategy formulated by representatives of both parties. They see such a joint project as an essential step in the right direction toward coherence and cooperation in their relations.
A conflict of interest between press and police is a universal phenomenon. Even in the US, where the press has much more freedom and is more aggressive and intrusive, journalists protest police secrecy. On the other hand, American police complain about press intrusiveness, and how that is negatively affecting their work. Still, American journalists tend to concede, at least privately, that the less they write about crime, the less crime there is. This could mean that the way they publish crime news incites potential criminals. Tabloid coverage of crime stories doesn’t usually care about people’s rights, be that of police officers, criminals or victims. All they care about, charge police sources, is selling their papers. In Saudi Arabia a national police strategy for dealing with the press should be prepared by journalists covering police stories, and officers with some journalism background. Such a strategy should provide publishing rights and set limits. Journalists and officers following these guidelines could cooperate without permission or consultation with police officials.
A reporter from every newspaper should be stationed inside every major police department. In time, these reporters will have enough experience to balance stories with both facts and security concerns. Their access to information will help them print facts quickly and accurately. Reporters and officers should meet at a conference periodically and in workshops to discuss mutual interests and issues of concern to both parties. A high-ranking officer with a solid media background should be appointed as a consultant to decision makers on how to deal with the press, especially during crises. This could help further to designate other information officers in each regional department who answer directly to the consultant.
The police should respond quickly and convincingly to press questions and negative comments through qualified and well-trained public relations departments in each regional police headquarters.
(The writer is a former police captain and director of the Security Enlightenment Department in the Makkah region. He is presently enrolled in a postgraduate course in journalism in London.)