Following ‘electronic social media intelligently is essential’

Roger Harrison
Updated 04 December 2019

Following ‘electronic social media intelligently is essential’

  • Arab News caught up with Harrison at the inaugural Saudi Media Forum in Riyadh

RIYADH: Roger Harrison was a senior reporter at Arab News for the best part of 20 years. Now “keeping the keyboard hot” from his home in Mallorca, he has not retired, but is busy plotting writing projects.
Arab News caught up with Harrison at the inaugural Saudi Media Forum in Riyadh where he was a keynote speaker on Tuesday.
Reflecting on his time with the paper, he observed that the environment was a bit “wild west”.
“I had a car accident and wrote to Arab news — the ‘Green Truth’ was a national institution, and I thought, why not? The letter described the curious and inventive driving habits I had encountered and their result,” he said.
The then editor-in-chief, Khaled Al-Maeena, called him and said the letter was too long to publish. “I thought, well the man had the courtesy to call at least. Then he said something that was to change my life — ‘Can we print it as an article please?’”
It appeared and Al-Maeena called again telling Harrison that the piece had caused what he described an enormous reaction. It was the beginning of a long career and the foundations of a firm friendship.
“I had no experience,” said Harrison. “I learned my trade on the hoof and seemed to please people with the output. I just wonder if that could happen now in the age of the focus on qualifications rather than tangential ability. Mr Khaled took a calculated risk and it seemed to pay off.”
Over the years Harrison covered stories from interviewing the great and the good, travel and even some eccentric but carefully researched pieces that sailed quite close to the wind.
“All that the editor-in-chief was concerned with was: Can you prove what you allege?” If the answer was yes, then it was usually printed.
Being very much a local newspaper, people brought problems to find a solution. On one occasion a large camp of expatriate laborers was found to be living in abject poverty — little or no food having received no wages for months.
“We did some digging, got the facts, wrote the story and printed it,” said Harrison. “A furious phone call resulted demanding my dismissal. I produced the file of documents and evidence, and Al-Maeena politely but firmly defused the caller.”
Harrison recalls that the high point of his time at Arab News was chasing three gliders around the Kingdom with a camera, resulting in a bestselling book.
“I had to make a choice — a fortnight with Boeing in Arizona at a ‘hands on’ experience with Apache gunship helicopters or traveling with Prince Sultan bin Salman and his co pilots around the Kingdom. I chose the latter; it was a seriously good call.”
One of the least glamorous moments was being caught in a dumpster late at night looking for dead cats. “Someone told us that a veterinarian was offering decent burials of pets for good money. But, there was a whisper that this was not so. So, a colleague and I checked. We found a couple of dead cats in the dumpster.”
Then the police turned up — an interesting moment or two ensued as they had to decide what a crazy Englishman was up to holding a bag of dead felines. “Fortunately my colleague had a golden tongue and explained us out of it.”
As to the future of the printed newspaper? Harrison has a very clear view on the importance of critical thinking and fact checking. He observed that printed papers say what you might have read on social media yesterday.
“I think the desire for immediate gratification and information that drives news on social media is a problem that will not go away,” he noted.
“The difference is that the constraints put on printed media to be accurate, truthful and right do not apply to the Internet as much if at all. Therein lies the problem; what is true, what is fact?”
So how to get round that challenge?
Harrison believes that early education in critical thinking and the need to read electronic social media intelligently is essential. “The Internet is our new world; it’s where we live. If we don’t adapt to our new environment, we will suffer hugely, and might not even realize it until too late,” he said.
Still fizzing with ideas, Harrison has some major projects in line involving what he refers to as “my second home”. The “big one” as he calls it involves traveling to all the Kingdom’s official and proposed UNESCO world heritage sites.
“Outside the Kingdom, many people have a one-dimensional view of what the place is like. The fact is that it has an incredible cultural history stretching back twenty millennia and more — it is, culturally, enormously rich. It is time that story was told,” he said.
“In truth,” Harrison concluded, “I never really worked for Arab News. I just followed my passion, had some incredible experiences, learned much, had enormous fun and someone paid me!”


China biggest jailer of journalists, as press dangers persist: watchdog

Updated 11 December 2019

China biggest jailer of journalists, as press dangers persist: watchdog

  • Many of those imprisoned face ‘anti-state’ charges or are accused of producing ‘false news’
  • Press freedom watchdog says it counted at least 48 journalists jailed in China

WASHINGTON: At least 250 journalists are jailed around the world, with the largest number held in China, amid a growing crackdown by authoritarian regimes on independent media, a press watchdog group said Wednesday.
Many of those imprisoned face “anti-state” charges or are accused of producing “false news,” according to the report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists which also cited Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Eritrea, Vietnam, and Iran for their jailing of journalists.
The press freedom watchdog said it counted at least 48 journalists jailed in China, one more than in 2018, as President Xi Jinping ramps up efforts to control the media.
That put China ahead of Turkey, which has 47 imprisoned journalists — and the largest number over the previous three years.
The report said the situation in Turkey, which had 68 journalists jailed last year, is not really an improvement but “reflects the successful efforts by the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to stamp out independent reporting and criticism.”
The CPJ said the Turkish government has shut down more than 100 news outlets and lodged terror-related charges against many of their staff, putting many reporters out of work and intimidating others.
“Dozens of journalists not currently jailed in Turkey are still facing trial or appeal and could yet be sentenced to prison, while others have been sentenced in absentia and face arrest if they return to the country,” the committee said.
The report said authoritarianism, instability and protests in the Middle East led to a rise in the number of journalists locked up in the region, with Saudi Arabia on a par with Egypt as the third worst jailer worldwide, each with 26 imprisoned.
In Saudi Arabia, no charges have been disclosed against 18 of the journalists behind bars, and CPJ expressed concern over reports of “beating, burning and starving political prisoners, including four journalists.”
Several of the arrests in Egypt came ahead of protests against corruption in September, which included calls for President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to resign.
Campaigners say the global total of 250 remains disturbingly high even if it is slightly below the 255 counted in 2018 and the record 273 in 2016.
“CPJ believes that journalists should not be imprisoned for doing their jobs,” the group said in its report.
It cited the case of Chinese freelance journalist Sophia Huang Xueqin, arrested in October after writing about marching with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
It also highlighted the case Egyptian economics reporter Mohammad Mosaed, detained after tweeting during an Internet shutdown intended to suppress news of protests against high fuel prices.
Globally, the number charged with ‘false news’ rose to 30 compared with 28 last year. This charge is used most frequently in Egypt but has also been leveled against journalists in Russia and Singapore.