SHAFAQNA -Â Thanks to WikiLeaks, Reporters Without Borders is able to expose how Saudi Arabiaâ€™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 â€œSaudi Cables.â€ 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.
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 ofÂ subscriptions.
In 2011, for example, the Saudi embassy in London suggestedÂ funding Wesal Farsi TV (now calledÂ Tawhid), a London-based, Persian-language TV station owned by a Sunni Iranian citizen opposed to his countryâ€™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 proposedÂ increasing funding in the form of subscriptions to the newspaperÂ 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 embassyâ€™s activities.
Sometimes media outlets themselves ask the Saudis for funding. This is what the head of the Afghan media centre SpogmaiÂ 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-basedÂ Financial Times newspaper. It had to withdraw its correspondent and close its Riyadh bureau for publishing â€œliesâ€ 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 â€œneutralâ€ and â€œobjectiveâ€ manner.
The Saudi ambassador in Beirut was asked toÂ explain the apparent change in the Lebanese newspaperÂ Al-Safirâ€™s editorial policy after it published a story about Osama Bin Laden and the Wahhabis, one that â€“ in Riyadhâ€™s view â€“ was full of â€œspecious argumentsâ€ and â€œfalse information.â€
In an undated cable, the Saudi embassy in Berlin informed the foreign ministry aboutÂ 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 anÂ 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.