Saudi Arabia bailed out failed Middle East media organizations in exchange for pro-Saudi coverage

Middle East WikiLeaks Saudi Arabia

In this file photo from November 5, 2008, a man reads the al-Akhbar newspaper covering Barack Obama’s victory in the US presidential election with a headline “The Black Kennedy to the White House” in Beirut, Lebanon.

AP Photo / Ahmad Omar

BEIRUT (AP) – A financially troubled Lebanese TV station has received a $ 2 million Saudi bailout in exchange for adopting a pro-Riyadh editorial policy.

A news agency in Guinea received a gift of $ 2,000, while small publications in the Arab world received tens of thousands of dollars in inflated subscription fees.

This is the image that emerged from Saudi diplomatic correspondence published by the WikiLeaks group, supporting long-standing suspicions that the kingdom is using its oil wealth to buy influence from the media and research centers through the Muslim world.

The leaked cables suggest an effort by the US ally to soften criticism, varnish its image and strengthen its allies in an Arab world torn by religious activism and sectarian tensions.

Many cables were linked to the growing rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and predominantly Shia Iran for influence in the region and point to Lebanon, an ethnically and religiously diverse nation with a vibrant press, as a key battleground. in the battle of wills between Riyadh. and Tehran.

“It’s not specific to Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia has taken it to a very high level,” said Jad Melki, director of the media studies program at the American University of Beirut. .

The authenticity of the cables could not be verified by the Associated Press, and the Saudi government has warned local media against publishing the diplomatic correspondence. But he didn’t say they were forged.

Middle East WikiLeaks Saudi Arabia

In this January 5, 2014 file photo, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal pauses as he delivers a statement to the media in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Saudi diplomatic correspondence published by the WikiLeaks group supports long-standing suspicions that the kingdom is using its oil wealth to buy influence from media and research centers in the Arab world.

Brendan Smialowski, via AP, Pool

Buying media support or silence is not uncommon in the Arab world, where media institutions have long depended on handouts or benefits from governments or wealthy patrons seeking to advance their interests. However, Saudi cables provide compelling, behind-the-scenes details of how this was done, with the names, dates and amounts of the payments.

In many ways, the cables paint a picture of a Saudi Arabia taking advantage of the media struggling to survive to defend its policies or criticize its enemies, including Iran, the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah or the regime of the Syrian president. Bashar Assad.

In some cases, the cables have shattered the long-held notion of a kingdom so inundated with petrodollars that the media only have to knock on the door for a check. Instead, they showed the kingdom’s rulers to make sure the money works for the country.

For example, in 2012, the late King Abdullah approved a $ 2 million bailout for Lebanese network MTV on the condition that it oppose “media hostile to the kingdom” and invite “scholar” Saudis to participate in events. talk shows, according to a series of cables.

The payment was reduced from an initial request for $ 20 million from the station manager – and was less than half of the $ 5 million recommended by the Saudi Arabian Foreign Ministry.

And it is telling that, on the recommendation of Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom’s foreign minister for nearly 40 years before his resignation in April, the money was paid in four installments over two years, allowing Saudi authorities to check every six months to see if MTV was living up to its end of the deal.

MTV spokesman and news chief Ghayath Yazbeck declined a request for AP to comment on the cables.

In another case, a cable from Prince Saud to the Saudi cabinet suggested that two major Saudi dailies – Asharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat – stop publishing editorials criticizing the kingdom’s main ally in Lebanon, the former prime minister. Saad al-Hariri, a key Sunni leader. Another recommended stopping media attacks on Russian politicians to help improve relations with Moscow.

Middle East WikiLeaks Saudi Arabia

In this file photo from Sunday, October 23, 2011, a Saudi man reads the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Photo AP / Hassan Ammar

“Buy silence,” the Beirut daily Al-Akhbar, which criticizes Saudi Arabia, headlined on Saturday, describing the revelations in the cables.

The correspondence showed that Saudi officials offered or refused free travel to the kingdom, which is home to Islam’s holiest shrines, to secure allies in the media or to punish those the government deemed critical.

For example, a prominent host of an Egyptian television show, Wael el-Obrashi, was taken off the list of the greatest personalities of the Egyptian media and benefited from an all-expenses-paid trip to Saudi Arabia because of “his attacks. repeated and unjustified against the kingdom, “according to a cable from Prince Saud.

Several Arab media figures have reportedly requested permission to travel to Saudi Arabia to share “intelligence” or plots against the kingdom, or to seek funding for media companies. Some were fired as crooks to get a check, but others were ordered to be debriefed by security officials.

Another cable from Prince Saud recommended financial support for a Lebanese journalist defense center set up by May Chidiac, a leading presenter who lost an arm and a leg when a bomb exploded under her car in 2005. Quoting a recommendation from the Saudi embassy in Beirut, the prince said the funding would allow the kingdom to use its center to promote Saudi policies.

“I didn’t ask for money and got nothing,” Chidiac told the AP when asked about the Saudi government’s 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 private network ONTV, against the appearance of a Saudi dissident, Saad al-Faqih, in one of his talk shows, according to a cable from the prince Saoud. The station said it would no longer invite al-Faqih and asked the ambassador to participate in the show at a later date.

The AP asked him if the correspondence was a response to a Saudi complaint to the station. Sawiris said, “Not to my knowledge.”

Other cases of alleged Saudi funding described in the leaked correspondence:

  • A cable from the Ministry of Culture and Information to the private secretary of the late King Abdullah called for financial support for the media in Tunisia to “win them over and strengthen the links between their leaders and the kingdom”.
  • In another cable, Mustafa Bakri, a prominent Egyptian journalist and former lawmaker, allegedly requested Saudi funds to start a daily and a television station in order to counter what he claimed were Iranian attempts to seduce Egyptian journalists. In comments published in a Cairo newspaper, Bakri said this claim was baseless.
  • One cable suggested that the Saudis were using their large stake in a common Arab communications satellite to stop transmitting Al-Alam in the Iranian Arabic language. The public network claims to have resumed its broadcasts from Arabsat in March 2013, three years later.

Another tactic that emerged from the leaked correspondence was paying large subscription fees to publications in countries where the kingdom sought to promote links.

A 2010 cable listed the following:

In Mauritania, the Saudis paid a total of $ 13,000 that year; Jordanian publications received $ 24,500; The little-known Lebanese magazine al-Khaleej collected $ 10,000, while in Kuwait, the Saudis paid more than $ 80,000 in subscription fees.

The tactic was first introduced in Canada, where, according to a cable from the Ministry of Culture and Information, two Arabic-language newspapers received $ 36,000 in subscription fees each for five years to counter what they had. referred to as anti-Saudi articles in a Toronto newspaper. weekly published by an international Shiite foundation.

Saudi media

A woman reads a newspaper with a photo of the recently deceased Saudi Crown Prince Nayef in Jeddah on June 17, 2012.

REUTERS / Susan Baaghil

In 2004, the president of the state-owned news agency in Guinea wrote to the Saudi embassy in Conakry reminding them to send $ 2,000, saying the money “solves many of the agency’s problems. “, According to a cable from Prince Saud to Culture. and Ministry of Information.

Repeated calls to the agency’s offices went unanswered, but a person familiar with its connections said the funding request was sent to the Saudi minister in 2004 by then-director Kandet Oumar Touré. He spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

Not all funding requests were accepted.

One cable described a request by Bassam Afeefy, editor of a small Lebanese magazine, al-Hadeel, for money to move to a new house in “safer” Beirut.

“His demand for a new home is grossly exaggerated and disproportionate to the service he has rendered to the kingdom,” Prince Saud wrote. Granting his request, he added, would encourage others to make similar requests.

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