Something got lost in all the outrage last week over the conviction and lashing sentence of the 22-year-old Saudi woman journalist who worked for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp (LBC). What exactly is the LBC doing to support their journalist?
The answer is absolutely nothing.
According to a Reuters report this week, the young woman had nothing to do with the Bold Red Line broadcast segment in which a Saudi man bragged about his sexual conquests. The man was sentenced to five years in jail and lashings, but the woman journalist only worked as a "fixer," someone who arranges interviews for foreign media. She apparently had nothing to do with the segment involving the braggart. Her crime apparently is that she worked for the LBC, which was not licensed to operate in Saudi Arabia.
Let's set aside the idiocy that the Saudi government did not know that the LBC was not licensed. Let's focus on the conduct of the LBC. The Lebanese were kicked out of the country, so they suffered a bit for their actions. But they also couldn't get out of Saudi Arabia fast enough, leaving behind a vulnerable employee who proved to be the LBC's scapegoat for their poor behavior. King Abdullah this week pardoned the woman, but she still must face a tribunal before the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information.
A year ago the LBC approached me and offered a job that eventually went to this young Saudi journalist. I spoke over the phone with their producers and a presenter. It quickly became clear that the LBC was not interested in Saudi news, but creating tabloid headlines.
Among the topics the LBC was eager to cover were strange sexual practices, voodoo and black magic, especially black magic practiced on wayward husbands. Runaway girls, marriages of convenience and spinsterhood were other topics the LBC wanted to present. The LBC was clearly interested in the sensational aspects of Saudi culture, taboo subjects that are not topics of conversation. Yet the LBC seemed unmoved that these stories would perpetuate Saudi stereotypes in a period in which Saudis are under attack for their cultural and religious differences.
Part of my responsibility as a Saudi journalist is that if wrongdoing is exposed or taboo subjects are addressed, solutions must be provided in these stories. Perhaps more important is the safety and well-being of the people we interview. It's likely that Saudis who participate in media interviews on sensitive subjects will face consequences for their actions.
It's one thing to interview a Saudi woman who chooses to remain unmarried to pursue a career. It's another for a young woman forced into spinsterhood by her father who wants her income. If such a woman gave an interview, she would have to answer to her family. What kind of support would the LBC provide for the girl if she was thrown out of the house? I think none. No two better examples of abandonment can be found than the sex braggart and the Saudi journalist.
During our discussion about my role in their Bold Red Line series, the LBC producers were cavalier, if not dismissive, about my concerns over the consequences of these kinds of interviews. When the discussion turned to me being hired as a producer, I thought that I could control editorial content. But the answer was no. Editorial control came from Beirut.
It became apparent that if I were to arrange the interviews, it would become my responsibility to see that the interviewees did not suffer any consequences for their frank talk. But that is an extremely risky task without the support of the employer.
I recognized the LBC was not prepared to offer any support after a broadcast to its Saudi employees or the interview subjects. Their desire to present sensitive Saudi issues as tabloid fodder was not much different than Western media parachuting into Riyadh for two days to do a story on how the abaya and niqab are oppressive to women. It makes for interesting television and boosts ratings, but it leaves a lot of pain and humiliation in its wake.
I rejected the LBC's offer. Their attitude toward Saudi Arabia was insincere and cynical. I could not see how the Bold Red Line series would benefit or shed any light on Saudi culture other than presenting Saudis as parodies of themselves.
It didn't occur to me until this young Saudi female journalist stood trial for the LBC's negligence that the LBC's producers would prey on someone who is young, perhaps naïve, and eager to advance her journalism career.
Now this young woman is suffering for the sins of the LBC, which has stood by mute. They offered no lawyer and no statement of condemnation for her treatment by the Saudi courts. LBC should be an embarrassment to Middle East journalists. At a time when Arab journalists are seeking to be taken seriously as professionals and attempt to adhere to an ethical standard, the LBC's cowardice illustrates just how little progress we have made.