July 9, 2015 - Updated on January 20, 2016

How Saudi Arabia manipulates foreign media outlets

Thanks to WikiLeaks, Reporters Without Borders is able to expose how Saudi Arabia’s government, which has suppressed all media freedom domestically, tries to co-opt foreign media outlets in order to project a positive image of the kingdom internationally.

Its methods are revealed in leaked cables between Saudi embassies and the Saudi foreign ministry which WikiLeaks has been publishing as the “Saudi Cables.” Not all of them are dated but the bulk of the documents cover the period from 2010 to 2015.

While it is not always clear from the cables what was actually done, they expose the extraordinary initiatives that were at least considered by the Saudi government in an attempt to improve its image abroad.

Chequebook diplomacy

Whenever it serves its interests, Saudi Arabia channels funds to media organizations all over the world, from the United Kingdom to Iran and Senegal. The funding usually takes the form of outright donations or thousands of subscriptions.

In 2011, for example, the Saudi embassy in London suggested funding Wesal Farsi TV (now called Tawhid), a London-based, Persian-language TV station owned by a Sunni Iranian citizen opposed to his country’s government. In return for monthly funding and allowing Saudi Arabia to appoint a representative to its board of governors, the TV station would respond to Iranian media criticism of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi ambassador in Senegal proposed increasing funding in the form of subscriptions to the newspaper Le Soleil from 4,000 to 10,000 US dollars a year and assisting the Wal Fajr media foundation in return for coverage of Saudi matters and the embassy’s activities.

Sometimes media outlets themselves ask the Saudis for funding. This is what the head of the Afghan media centre Spogmai did in 2009. He requested funding for the creation of a news website, a daily newspaper, a magazine and a TV station that would act as counterweights to Afghan media outlets funded by Iran or India.

Reacting to criticism

Another method used by the government is to counter-attack or sanction in response to damaging media reports. This is what happened to the London-based Financial Times newspaper. It had to withdraw its correspondent and close its Riyadh bureau for publishing “lies” about Saudi Arabia. The Saudi authorities even considered legal proceedings if the newspaper did not issue an apology and undertake to cover Saudi Arabia in a “neutral” and “objective” manner.

The Saudi ambassador in Beirut was asked to explain the apparent change in the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir’s editorial policy after it published a story about Osama Bin Laden and the Wahhabis, one that – in Riyadh’s view – was full of “specious arguments” and “false information.”

In an undated cable, the Saudi embassy in Berlin informed the foreign ministry about rumours of a media campaign against Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, by the Israeli embassy in Berlin in cooperation with German media outlets.

In counteract this offensive, the Saudi embassy proposed using experienced German journalists and writers to write articles about Saudi Arabia every six months, and to translate books by Saudis that would be promoted at cultural events. The five journalists were to be paid at least 7,500 euros a month.

In South Africa, the ambassador suggested paying an academic and a journalist nearly 10,000 US dollars in 2009 to respond to articles published in a newspaper in late 2008 about the roots of modern Islamic extremism.

The importance of embassies

The embassies play a dynamic role in organizing and maintaining active pro-Saudi propaganda abroad. As they are familiar with the local media, they are best placed to monitor what the media are saying and to make suggestions to the Saudi government.

The Saudi foreign ministry pays close attention to what is reported internationally on matters concerning Saudi Arabia, receiving daily Iranian press summaries and frequent press reviews from elsewhere in the world, especially the Arabic-language media.

As well as cables between Saudi Arabia’s embassies and the Saudi foreign ministry, the documents obtained by WikiLeaks include foreign ministry letters and emails, and reports from the interior ministry and intelligence services. In an official reaction on Twitter, the Saudi government warned its citizens not to share documents which, it said, could have been fabricated.

There are no independent media in Saudi Arabia. Journalists are either censored or they censor themselves for fear of reprisals.