Saudi cables suggest attempts at influencing media
BEIRUT - Diplomatic cables, made public by website WikiLeaks, indicate the Saudi government offered media outlets financial lifelines and other perks in exchange for favourable coverage.
Examples of the alleged influence-buying include a financially troubled Lebanese TV network receiving a $2 million bailout in return for adopting a pro-Riyadh editorial policy and a Guinean news agency being given $2,000 and small publications across the Arab world raking in tens of thousands of dollars in inflated subscription fees.
The leaked cables suggest an effort by the US ally to dampen criticism, varnish its image and strengthen allies in an Arab world torn by religious militancy and sectarian tensions.
Many of the cables were linked to the growing rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and mostly Shia Iran over influence in the region and point to Lebanon, an ethnically and religiously diverse nation with a vibrant media, as a key arena in the battle of wills between Riyadh and Tehran.
“This is not specific to Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia took it to a very high level,” said Jad Melki, director of the Media Studies Programme at the American University of Beirut.
The authenticity of the cables could not be verified by the Associated Press (AP), and the Saudi government cautioned local media against publishing the correspondence. However, officials did not claim the documents were forged.
Buying the support or silence of the media is not uncommon, especially in the Arab world, where media institutions have long been dependent on handouts or benefits from governments or wealthy patrons looking to promote their interests.
The Saudi cables, though, provide behind-the-scenes details of how it was done, complete with names, dates and payout amounts.
In many ways, the cables paint a picture of a Saudi Arabia taking advantage of media outlets struggling to survive to champion its policies or criticize its foes, including Iran, Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah or the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In some cases, the cables shattered the long-held notion of a kingdom so awash in petrodollars that media outlets need only knock on the door to get a check. Instead, they showed the kingdom’s leaders making sure that money yields results for the country.
For example, in 2012, the late King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud approved a $2 million bailout for the Lebanese MTV network on condition it countered “media hostile to the kingdom” and invited “learned” Saudis as guests on talk shows, according to a series of cables.
The payout was whittled down from an initial request for $20 million by the station’s director and was less than half the $5 million recommended by the Saudi Foreign Ministry.
And tellingly, on a recommendation from Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom’s foreign minister for nearly 40 years before he stepped down in April, the money was disbursed in four instalments over two years, allowing Saudi authorities to review every six months whether MTV was living up to its part of the deal.
MTV spokesman and news chief Ghayath Yazbeck declined an AP request for comment on the cables.
In another case, a cable from Saud to the Saudi cabinet suggested two leading Saudi-owned dailies — Asharq al-Awsat and Al-Hayat — stop publishing editorials critical of the kingdom’s chief ally in Lebanon, former prime minister Saad al- Hariri, a key Sunni leader. Another recommended a halt to media attacks on Russian political figures to help improve ties with Moscow.
The correspondence showed Saudi officials offered or denied free trips to the kingdom, home to Islam’s holiest shrines, to secure allies in the media or to punish those the government deemed critical.
For example, a prominent Egyptian TV talk show host, Wael el- Obrashi, was dropped from a list of top Egyptian media figures treated to an all-expenses-paid trip to Saudi Arabia because of “his repeated, unjustified attacks on the kingdom”, according to one cable from Saud.
Another cable from Saud recommended financial backing for a Lebanese centre to defend journalists set up by May Chidiac, a prominent anchorwoman who lost an arm and a leg when a bomb exploded under her car in 2005. Citing a recommendation from the Saudi Embassy in Beirut, the prince said the funding would allow the kingdom to use her centre to promote Saudi policies.
“I did not ask for money and did not get anything,” Chidiac told the AP when asked about Saudi government contributions. “I have a foundation, and I am transparent. Those who support me, I thank them.”
In Egypt, the Saudi ambassador protested to Naguib Sawiris, founder of the privately owned ONTV network, over the appearance of a Saudi dissident, Saad al-Faqih, on one of its talk shows, according to a cable from Saud. The station said it would not invite Faqih again and asked the ambassador to appear on the program at a later date.
Asked by the AP if the correspondence was in response to a Saudi complaint to the station, Sawiris said, “Not to my knowledge.”
(The Associated Press)