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January 26, 2012

The false death story of Manal al-Sherif, a planned mistake or shall we say "shame on AFP"?

January 26, 2012

January 26, 2012

(Suleiman Nimr, from the Arab Times website)

A large number of media outlets were reporting on the false death of Manal El-Sherif, the brave Saudi who defied her country's driving ban, in a car accident; The Arab Digest investigates whether this has been a structural fault of news agency reporting from Saudi Arabia.
The story originated in an Agence France Press (AFP) news report, according to this excellent article on the saga. Of course, the Daily Telegraph, Sky News, Daily Mail, and hundreds of established media outlets followed on the story, as if it was confirmed. It took hours for the Guardian to report that El-Sherif is still alive. The story ended there.
But what a convenient irony? The Saudi woman who broke the long silence on this shameful driving ban, dies in a car accident! How convenient for the Saudi government and religious establishment that is trying to put down all voices of descent!
We have previously reported on the religious establishment's tough stance on women driving (clerics warned that women will lose their virginity if they drive); the Saudi government, an absolute monarchy, has been no doubt harmed by such negative reporting, especially in light of the Arab Spring's radical changes in regimes and government. Can we learn anything from this "faulty" reporting incident?

AFP's "gaffe" was reminiscent of Reuters' shameful reporting from Yemen, where their correspondent turned out to be also Ali Abdullah Saleh's personal translator! The Arab Digest had interviewed the Yemeni activist Hind Eryani who launched the shameonreuters campaign, and managed to force the international agency into firing their biased correspondent. Is AFP guilty of complicity with the Saudi regime, like Reuters was with Yemen's Saleh?
A Saudi newspaper's sub-editor told the Arab Digest that the Saudi authorities usually "have to approve any correspondent before his appointment; this is an official policy that applies to all news outlets". A former AFP Middle East desk sub editor confirmed this.
To find a proper case of this practice, a name surfaced, the AFP's former Saudi Arabia reporter, Suleiman Nimr (till 2009). According to this same AFP Middle East desk journalist, "Nimr was known by AFP to be close to Prince Salman, the current Saudi Foreign minister, and former powerful Prince (Governor) of Riyadh". "They knew that fact but they also have very high professional standards; I assure you they kept an eye on him". the journalist added. Searching Suleiman Nimr's past contributions, I found a particular article, which has a critical tone of Saudi female activists, calling for a lift of the current driving ban. Nimr, according to another report, was a media adviser to Prince Salman, the King's brother. The uncorroborated report says that Nimr "was among the most important media figures in Salman's castle" and that "he started his career by publishing full-page congratulations messages to the Jordanian King in the annual celebration of his accession to the throne".
We understand the difficulty of reporting in Saudi Arabia, but should we be more careful about what we read from there, even if it came from AFP or Reuters?

PS. We are still looking into the AFP reporting, and awaiting some more information, so please stay tuned.


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