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Attacks in Saudi Arabia Spark Debate - Guardian, UK

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  • Zafar Khan
    Attacks in Saudi Arabia Spark Debate Tuesday June 24, 2003 7:09 AM By FAIZA SALEH AMBAH Associated Press Writer
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 24, 2003
      Attacks in Saudi Arabia Spark Debate
      Tuesday June 24, 2003 7:09 AM
      Associated Press Writer


      JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) - A foiled terror plot on
      Islam's holiest city and suicide bombings in the Saudi
      capital have shaken this deeply conservative kingdom,
      but at the same time produced positive side effects in
      sparking open debate and a freer press.

      Despite the firing last month of a prominent newspaper
      editor, the normally constrained Saudi press is back
      covering news with a frankness that did not exist
      before the May 12 Riyadh bombings that killed 34
      people and the June 14 gun battles in Mecca that
      authorities say killed five terrorists and two

      Long regarded as secretive, the Saudi government has
      come under increasing pressure to open up and
      introduce social and political reforms. In particular,
      the United States has urged Saudi Arabia to do more to
      curb Islamic militancy following the Sept. 11, 2001,
      attacks that were blamed on Saudi dissident Osama bin
      Laden's al-Qaida group and carried out by 19 plane
      hijackers - 15 of them Saudi.

      Last month's attacks on Western residential housing
      compounds in Riyadh, in which nine Americans and nine
      Saudi suicide bombers were killed, increased the
      pressure on Saudi authorities to work more openly to
      stamp out terrorism both at home and abroad.

      Such a climate, plus the stiff competition being
      offered by non-Saudi TV stations and Internet sites,
      has led to more aggressive coverage from Saudi

      In an unusual move, local newspapers recently broke
      the story of police fighting a gunbattle near Mecca's
      main mosque with militants suspected of being al-Qaida
      terrorists and possibly linked to the Riyadh suicide
      bombings - a day before the government issued a
      statement confirming the events.

      ``The press is currently pushing the envelope and
      crossing red lines,'' said Wahib Ghorab,
      editor-in-chief of Urdu News, a Saudi-owned,
      Urdu-language paper.

      ``First, there are more news events to cover, and
      second, when we lagged behind in our reporting, like
      we did during the May 12 attacks, we lost our readers,
      who watched the news on non-Saudi owned stations like
      al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, and on Internet-web

      The fact that mainly Saudis have been implicated in
      the attacks or arrested in subsequent crackdowns has
      also had an impact.

      ``The roundup in Mecca has had a profound effect on
      internal debate here. People realized the problem was
      at home and had to be dealt with,'' said Gwen
      Okruhlik, an American researcher living in and writing
      a book on Saudi Arabia.

      ``There's a frankness (in the press) that didn't exist
      before. It used to be that some issues were discussed
      only in private. And now it's out in the open,''
      Okruhlik added.

      Since the Mecca raid, local papers, which are
      privately owned but government guided, have been
      regularly reporting shootouts, arrests and extensive
      manhunts for suspects without waiting for government
      approval or confirmation.

      Papers have been publishing interviews with the
      families of suspects and police and carrying pictures
      of wounded victims, slain suspects and the sites of
      shootouts and arrests.

      And the public has noticed the difference.

      ``There's more credibility in the local papers now. I
      don't have to search the Internet to see what's
      happening, I can just read the local press,'' said
      32-year-old restaurateur Yasser Bajnaid.

      Housewife Abeer Hamza said it took ``terrorist acts''
      for Saudis to admit their own ``weaknesses and discuss
      them openly.''

      ``Now the papers are crowded with pictures, details,
      comments and interviews. They've become much more
      interesting,'' Hamza, 33, said.

      But some suggest the changes may only be fleeting and
      that Saudi authorities are releasing the pressure
      valve only to appease the United States and pro-reform
      critics at home.

      ``These are like waves of the sea. A wave of reform
      and then a clampdown,'' said Mishari al-Zaidi, a
      journalist who writes on Islamic affairs for the
      Saudi-owned, London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

      ``This opening up happens after all major events; like
      the Sept. 11 attacks, the Riyadh attacks and now the
      events in Mecca. These waves are not real change. For
      that to happen the Ministry of Information should be
      either dismantled or completely reformed.''

      Saudi's Information Ministry monitors the local and
      foreign press and bars publications with articles
      critical of the kingdom.

      Other journalists are still wary after last month's
      firing of Jamal Khashoggi, the al-Watan editor who
      lost his job after his paper published articles
      suggesting that Islamic fanaticism, long tolerated by
      the ruling Al Saud family, led to terrorism.

      One journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity,
      said Khashoggi's sacking was ``in the back of my mind
      when I write'' and made him more careful as he did not
      want to suffer the same fate.

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