Two important lessons from Saudi Arabia and the UAE
In Saudi Arabia the Council of Ministers, chaired by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah, issued a ruling that requires state ministries to appoint spokespeople and respond to the media, whilst in the UAE, it was announced that four Twitter accounts tracing back to Abu Dhabi had been suspended, because they were inciting tribal prejudices. Without a doubt, both initiatives are worthy of praise.
For Saudi Arabia it is the first time that ministries, without exception, will have official spokespeople to deal with the media. This is instead of some ministers portraying the Saudi media as the problem, claiming that it enjoys a degree of freedom that sometimes demands a lot of responsibility. Yet that does not mean that a minister, or their ministry, can live in an ivory tower, using the Saudi press to embellish them personally, or embellish their ministry! I do not understand how the Ministry of Interior, where collecting information lies at the heart of its work, cannot provide an official spokesperson for Saudi reporters, or anyone else for that matter. We have also seen other ministries where a spokesperson is already available, but they do not have the authority to speak or give information!
This is amazing, the spokesperson not only answers questions, but they also take the initiative and explain to the press what information is appropriate for publication and what is not.
It is in the interests of all parties, official or private, to respond to the media, for it is far better when only part of the story, rather than the whole thing, is against you.
Thus we find the White House in America dealing with the media like any commercial enterprise in New York or elsewhere. Silence does not protect you from the media and public opinion, rather this is achieved through providing correct information and of course, by responding to questions.
As for the UAE, what happened in Abu Dhabi is a lesson for everyone, namely that just because you are writing on a social networking website; this does not mean that you are out of reach of the law, or that you have a free reign to offend people or institutions.
This is not freedom of opinion, freedom comes with responsibility, and it does not constitute launching insults here and there. An insult is not an opinion; it goes beyond this and deserves to be punished.
The punishments for such abuses will only increase as we go further into the debate, as we seek to restore our values in the Arab world. Here some may ask how someone in the media can ask for restrictions such as these.
The truth is that the volume of insults, the continuous broadcast of lies, and the personal abuse directed at every public figure has exceeded a reasonable limit in our region, specifically in Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states, and likewise in a sad and notable manner in Egypt.
Everyone is allowed to have a different opinion, to make a joke, or to vent their rejection of a particular idea, but they cannot lead campaigns of hatred, incitement or misinformation, such that those that occur on Twitter or Facebook. It is strange that many have not noticed that Twitter itself, for example, sets strict conditions against misinformation or deceiving the public opinion, and prohibits any form of slander.
A British official said last week that those who write under pseudonyms are hiding behind false names, but this does not excuse them from prosecution in Britain, while unfortunately we find Arab intellectuals and officials who believe that the matter is a case of “all or nothing” when it comes to freedom of opinion. Yet there is another approach adopted by civilized countries, namely to punish those who abuse their freedoms.
Therefore, the decisions from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi are steps in the right direction, and deserve praise and support from everyone who believes in responsibility and the need to respect it.
The author is editor in chief of Asharq Al-Awsat.
Write to him at [email protected]