JEDDAH, 6 January 2004 — The Saudi Journalists Association (SJA) will work to protect freedom of expression, said Turki Al-Sudairy, chairman of the organization's constituent committee, amid a chorus of criticism of the new organization from journalists in the Kingdom.
"Freedom of expression is the right of Saudi journalists," he said in an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, a sister publication of Arab News.
He said the Ministry of Culture and Information would "not at all interfere" in the association's activities.
Al-Sudairy's statement comes ahead of the election for the SJA's first board of directors on Thursday. Some 530 Saudi journalists are expected to vote in the historic poll.
Twenty-three journalists including nine existing and three former editors in chief are competing for a place on the nine-member board.
The Ministry of Culture and Information has approved the list of candidates which includes Al-Sudairy, who is editor in chief of Al-Riyadh Arabic newspaper; Abdul Wahab Al-Fayez, editor in chief of Al-Eqtisadiah; Osama Al-Sibae, a writer; and Dr. Hashim Abdu Hashim, editor in chief of Okaz.
Other prominent hopefuls are: Khaled Al-Malik, editor in chief of Al-Jazirah; Suleiman Al-Eisa, adviser at the Culture and Information Ministry; Qenan Al-Ghamdi, former editor in chief of Al-Watan; and Muhammad Al-Fal, former editor in chief of Al-Madinah daily.
According to Al-Sudairy, an eight-member panel including officials from the ministry and the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry will oversee the election, to be held at Saud Al-Babtain Center for Heritage and Culture.
But Dawood Al-Shiryan, a Saudi writer, said the election of editors in chief to the board would not serve the purpose. "This is a semi-official organization with its laws set out by the ministry. This is not what we expected," he said, adding that he would not take part in the poll.
Al-Watan newspaper described the election as a "historic" event. The board's first task will be to formulate an executive bylaw for the association.
Al-Sudairy said the association would work to defend the interests of journalists and help them get considerable discounts from airlines, hospitals, supermarkets, hotels and clubs.
"The association will try to help journalists win their rights quickly," he added. The association will also hold training programs for journalists.
More than 1,000 journalists have already registered with the organization. "There are a good number of female journalists," he said.
The association has promised that female journalists will be treated equally with the male journalists. But some female journalists have voiced doubts it will be able to stand up for them.
Columnist and editor Abeer Mishkhas complained she had not been told of the election or the candidates. "I was expecting at least one female candidate on the list to take up our problems without bias," she said.
She said she wants a full role in the organization. "I am not here just to vote for this candidate or that and then to be forgotten." Mishkhas also decided not to vote because "the SJA completely sidelined female journalists."
"I don't think the association will help us much unless we have an active role in it," said Manal Al-Sharif of Al-Watan. "We must be able to attend the general meetings of the association and we need to have female representatives on the board of directors," she said.
Manal suggested establishing a women's committee as part of the association where women can meet regularly to discuss their issues and elect female representatives for them to the board of directors.
"Female journalists' rights are generally ignored or sidelined; most of them, even full-time journalists, cannot depend on this job as a source of income and many of them quit," Fatimah Al-Saeedi of Al-Madinah newspaper said.
According to Article 27 of the law, the association will be an independent body which will deal with matters related to journalists. The union's executive bylaw determines its mission and powers.