No media frivolity, please! We're Saudi

A call to issue a 'media punishment law' in Saudi Arabia, as a result of the popular Ramadan soap opera 'Tash ma Tash', is raising unprecedented commotion and condemnation in the Kingdom.
By Hanaa Al Akhmari, Correspondent
Tash ma tash
'Tash ma tash' is among the longest-running Ramadan soap operas, and one that has never been shy of controversy. R.R.

JEDDAH - The new law was proposed by a member of the Shura Council,
which represents the highest authority in the country.

Abdullah Al-Tuweirky, a member of the council's media committee, was not amused by the way the Shura Council was recently portrayed in the immensely popular TV soap opera, 'Tash ma Tash', and particularly in an episode entitled 'Liberals, but...'

'Tash ma Tash' (Whatever comes) is one of the longest running so-called Musalsals, or Ramadan soap operas, and it has never been shy of controversy.

In earlier years, it has made fun of suicide bombers and the Kingdom's religious police.

During this year's fasting period, the show chose to mock pro-Western Arab liberals.

[ "The liberals aren't serious, they are not committed, they are not practical. They just talk", the show's creator and one of the lead actors, Nasser Al-Qassabi, recently told the Financial Times. ]
But the show also targeted the Shura Council itself, questioning the qualifications of some its members.

This was not to the liking of Abdullah Al-Tuweirky, who defended his call for a new media 'punishment' law in a trilogy of articles published in the Al Watan newspaper.

According to Al-Tuweirky, "the Council has recently become a low wall for journalistic climbers, half-journalists and journalist-wannabes who have found what they had been looking for in the Shura Council - despite the fact that the Council has continued to open its arms to the media for almost twenty years now”.   

In the past couple of years, the Shura Council has indeed opened its sessions to media coverage for the first time. Ever since, Al-Tuweirky wrote, "it has been subjected to a fierce campaign undertaken by opinion writers, commentators and television and press correspondents who have become, overnight, unrivaled parliamentary media representatives”.

Al-Tuweirky felt that this "media frivolity" and "journalistic carelessness" has become an obstacle preventing the council from performing its parliamentary duties.

Al-Tuweirky apparently took the slight personally because of his own involvement in the council's media committee.

“I was sorry to see the project of a lifetime, aiming to discipline and reform the media apparatus once and for all, and to provide a legal context for setting the ceiling for media coverage of parliamentary affairs, slip from between the fingers of the Council members. Not only that, I was hurt because as a media person, I made a commitment [...] to support a law that would alleviate [...] the psychological pressure endured by the Council members because of this unguided opinion-making apparatus."

Many of the Kingdom's journalists were deeply disappointed by Al-Tuweirky's words.

Hamoud Abu Taleb, in Al Madina newspaper, wrote: “Believe me, I tried to lie to myself after reading the first part. I tried to convince myself that the person who wrote these words was not Abdullah Al-Tuweirky, the enlightened intellectual I know. After the second part was published, I scratched my head, rubbed my eyes and cleaned my glasses with a special, expensive formula, before looking at the name of the author again. It was indeed that of our friend. Despite it all, I said to myself: Wise up boy, there must be something wrong. I asked many of my friends inside and outside of the Shura Council and they told me there was no one else but him and that I had to live with this reality.

"It was only yesterday that I became certain that Dr. Abdullah was indeed proceeding in this great Jihad to tear down our media accomplishments, which were achieved through an acceptable level of freedom of expression, criticism and transparency. I became certain that he has removed all the brakes from his cart and has driven it as fast as possible to run over all the national pens and voices who are only seeking the best and the most appropriate. These are the voices trying to deal with corruption, bureaucracy and mismanagement in public institutions, many of which are still harming us, even despite the Council's knowledge of them.

"Whoever reads Dr. Al-Tuweirky's articles must think that the media covering the Shura Council are routinely getting all the facts wrong. The reader might also be forgiven to conclude that those writers who criticize the performance of the Council are among the ignorant and the riffraff [....] Dr. Abdullah's accusations against the writers, media people and intellectuals are frightening and shameful.”          

For his part, writer Ali Musa, criticized Al-Tuweirky's choice of words.

“I leave it to you to contemplate the following words: punishment, strictness, masquerading, containment, discipline, confusion, unguided and irresponsible. There is only one place other than al-Tuweirky's articles where one could find such strong language, and that is in a police report. Couldn’t [Al-Tuweirky] have found an expression other than “the media punishment law” to announce his law proposal?!

"I thank God for one thing but am scared by another", Musa continued. "I thank God because the head of the Council and its members have not yet adopted Al-Tuweirky’s law proposal to punish the media because they believe that the Council has a message for the people and this message cannot be spread without the help of the media. However, what I fear is that the honorable Council is only a greenhouse for our higher administrative positions. One can only imagine Al-Tuweirky’s ideas reaching the executive decision-making table if the tree were to grow. I thus write with extreme caution for fear that my article will come to constitute the first crime under the proposed new law”.

The proposal is still an object of avid discussion in the Kingdom. The reactions mostly condemn the proposal, as the Saudi media await with trepidation the publication of Al-Tuweirky's fourth article, which one columnist has already described as the “fourth calamity”.

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During Ramadan, Arab families fast during the day and... watch TV at night. This year's crop of Ramadan soap operas, or Musalsals, has stirred the usual controversy and kept the censors busy. King Farouq was the undisputed jewel in the crown of the 2007 Musalsals.