Q & A with Al-Watan’s Jamal Khashoggi
Jeddah, Asharq Al-Awsat- Four years have passed since Jamal Khashoggi was relieved of his duties as Editor of the leading Saudi reformist newspaper Al-Watan, where he held the aforementioned post for 52 days. Today, however, he has returned to the post with a new vision in mind.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Jamal Khashoggi, after his reappointment as Editor of Al-Watan. He asserted that his journalistic expertise is what had driven the newspaper’s board to reemploy him and that he did not return to cause contention with less open-minded parties, but rather to publish a newspaper that competes with the world’s most significant publications, utilizing his previous experiences and expertise in the field.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: How does it feel to be reappointed as Editor-in-Chief?
A: I was very happy at the news. For me, Al-Watan newspaper was like a young bride with whom I had only spent 52 days! I feel like I am still attached to it and I praise God that I am back once again.
Q: Can you tell us about the circumstances that brought you back to the newspaper and what exactly was required from you?
A: I was asked to meet three requirements, one of which was to stay in the post of Editor-in-Chief for a duration longer than two months…that was the joke made by the chairman of the newspaper’s board, Prince Khaled Al Faisal. The second condition was that the newspaper does not lose its spirit, and the third was that it does not exceed its limits. For my part, I expect to receive the adequate support from His Royal Highness, Prince Khaled and the general manager. I feel that I am on their wavelength since we are from the same age group and have received similar educations. I think we will make a good team.
Q: You were dismissed from the post the first time because of pressure from groups that opposed your open and liberal ideas. Do you believe that circumstances will be different now? What has changed for you to guarantee the success of your mission?
A: Firstly, I do not like the term “liberal and open ideas”. I am still convinced that we do not have a liberal trend in Saudi Arabia. The issue could be summarized by dividing society into two categories: conservative Saudis who constitute the vast majority of Saudi society and less conservative individuals who are more willing to open up. However, the atmosphere and the circumstances differ greatly from the previous period. Issues previously raised by Al-Watan newspaper that had provoked criticism are now openly and audaciously discussed by all Saudi newspapers. What is happening nowadays is healthy with a degree of discipline, which was affirmed by more than one official who said, “Write what you want as long as you have verified your information.” The most important thing for a journalist is not to lie under any circumstances.
Q: Do you think that your return will serve the paper well with respect to the fact that you are a controversial figure?
A: I do not believe that those in charge of Al-Watan newspaper selected me for the aforementioned reason. They chose me because they are in need of a professional journalist. In me they have seen the experience that would enable me to successfully manage a thriving newspaper. On the other hand, I did not intend or want to be a controversial individual. All I want is to be a professional journalist.
Q: What are the plans for the next stage and which issues will you focus on?
A: I am no longer convinced by the old concept that states that journalism is a mission. Now, I believe that a newspaper is a public service like water and electricity. From here comes the idea of a mission that entails preaching, guidance, enlightenment and education. More specifically, it provides information to the reader, whether political or economic or even information that may not seem as important, such as restaurant reviews, but are of interest to the customer [the reader]. The newspaper is a comprehensive publication but it cannot be specialized.
Q: There have been claims that Al-Watan is a paper that is based upon the strength of its opinion editorials whereas the news section is quite simple. Do you agree with this and if so, how would you change that?
A: It is too early to elaborately judge the matter. I do not think that any reader would choose to read Al-Watan newspaper just for its opinion editorials and ignore its local news section. Some studies confirm that we now have what could be called a one-paper reader; the reader prefers to read one particular newspaper every day. Opinion editorials alone are not enough to satisfy the reader, despite that I agree with you that this section is strongest of the newspaper and is one of the important assets of Al-Watan newspaper. However, local news is of no less importance and I shall make every effort to develop this section and improve the professionalism and performance.
Q: Will you turn to other opinion writers who share the same journalistic and intellectual orientations as yourself?
A: This is a possibility and it is an important and necessary issue in my opinion. However, I do not recall the names of any writers whose articles we would use. I will say that it is normal when there is a new editor-chief that some members of the newspaper would choose to stay or leave, whether by their own accord or otherwise. At this point this issue is not one of my priorities but I will say that I do not like complicated writers because people do not want or do not like to read complicated articles; the reader is now a quick reader who wants fast and clear opinions. If any writer in Al-Watan newspaper lacks these qualities then I would hope that they start looking for somewhere else [to work].
Q: Does the team working at the newspaper meet your expectations regarding future plans?
A: I am very comfortable because the majority of team members are young people who are eager to leave an impression. They are willing to develop and are keen to learn. I am optimistic that we will all create excellent teamwork.
Q: To what extent are you concerned about the competition posed by other newspapers?
A: Al-Watan newspaper is the youngest Saudi newspaper, yet it has surpassed many of the established local newspapers and this is a reflection that it has undoubtedly succeeded according to such criterion. We are now competing with top newspapers and this competition will last because competition in this field is very difficult; journalism has an impact and becomes a custom whereby a newspaper has the ability to get the reader to start his day by reading the paper. It is very difficult for any other newspaper to distract that reader’s attention away from his favorite newspaper. Thus, competition in the field of journalism is all about perseverance, patience and an honest attempt to convince the reader that it is the best newspaper to read and that it deserves the reader’s attention.
Q: Was there a concealed message through your dismissal that the Editor-in-Chief always bears the blame for other peoples’ mistakes in the Saudi press?
A: The publishing system would indicate so. I do not think that this issue is exclusive to us however; it is in fact present in the oldest of democracies. One editor-in-chief in Britain resigned after he sensed a failure in one of the realms of his newspaper. This is correct to a large extent; the editor always bears responsibility for all that is written in the newspaper. I would like to mention that each newspaper in the world has a legal representative whose duty is to make sure that whatever is published the next day would not subject the newspaper to legal accountability before the courts. We will adopt this orientation in Al-Watan despite the high costs entailed. I believe that with this legal development, the day will come when all Saudi newspapers adopt the same procedure. But for the time being, and since the law is not severe with editorial mistakes, there is a relaxed attitude within newspapers.
Q: What is the difference between your former position as media adviser to the Saudi Ambassador to London and Washington and your current post as Editor-in-Chief of Al-Watan?
A: I feel fortunate to have gained such experience as a media advisor working with His Royal Highness Prince Turki Al Faisal. It is an experience that has enriched my skills and knowledge, as is the case with diplomatic work in general. I believe that my previous job allowed me to acquire some sort of understanding and appreciation for the government institutions that exert their best efforts; however newspapers are quick in some cases to accuse governments of negligence.
Q: How would you respond to accusations against you claiming you adopt a frank discourse with foreign media, yet adopt another less outspoken and less enthusiastic discourse with the internal one?
A: I do not do this and I do not know of others who do. Perhaps some people do, however that would cause them to lose credibility. Media requires credibility and accuracy before anything else.
Q: Did the period in which you were away from journalism help you to better assess the Saudi press? What is your current assessment of it?
A: The most important attribute of the Saudi press is that it is a rich press. It is a private sector in every sense of the word and it generates very high profits for its owners. Thus the failure of press organizations to train their members is completely unjustified. We must work to present a distinguished Saudi press. I think that in the upcoming days there will be a reconsideration of journalistic regulations given the current openness to technology. We are now seeing Saudi newspapers that follow the regulations of Saudi publications and those that do not. We can also find other newspapers that are being established outside of publication regulations and under leased licenses. If all these practices were not codified under a unified system, there will be a state of confusion. I believe that this issue is being considered by the Minister of Information.
Q: There is talk about an upcoming media boom in Saudi Arabia. Do you agree with such talk?
A: Of course, there is an upcoming media boom. I do not think that there has been any in the Saudi press of the past. Prince Naif, the Saudi Interior Minister, when he was asked about freedom of press a few days ago, replied that there is freedom and that there are complaints about this freedom. There is a strong feeling about expansion and openness; however this requires seriousness and professionalism. As journalists, we all need to get used to asking about the news and of verifying its credibility.
Jamal khashoggi Bio:
– Born in Medina.
– Obtained Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Indiana State University, USA.
– Worked for Saudi Gazette at the beginning of his career
– Employed as a correspondent for a number of daily and weekly Arab newspapers between 1987 and 1999
– Covered events in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, the Middle East between 1991 and 1999
– Appointed Deputy Editor-in-Chief at Arab News between 1999 and 2003
– Assumed the post of Editor-in-Chief at Al-Watan newspaper in 2003 for 52 days and was dismissed from his position following much controversy surrounding the paper’s position towards the terrorist attacks in the kingdom.
– Appointed media advisor to Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki Al-Faisal from 2004 to 2007.
– Reappointed as Editor-in-Chief at Al-Watan in 2007