As far as I’m concerned, there is only one surprising element of this weekend’s story about a female Saudi journalist who was sentenced to 60 lashes. It isn’t that the country’s Wahhabi clerics decided to pursue legal action against not only Mazen Abdul-Awad, a Saudi man who aired his dirty sexual laundry on a program for Lebanese TV (he, by the way, has already been sentenced to five years in jail and 1,000 lashes for his indiscretion), but also LBC, the station that aired the show. And in one of the world’s most misogynist nations, it isn’t hard to believe that a court tried and convicted 22-year-old Rozanna al-Yami in connection with the scandal, “on grounds that the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. she worked for did not have proper authorization to operate in the Islamic kingdom.” (Never mind that, as the Associated Press reports, “The charges included involvement in preparing the program and advertising it on the Internet. Ms. Yami said she had worked as a coordinator for the program but had not worked on the episode in question.”) Despite the many layers of injustice involved in al-Yami’s conviction and sentence, it wasn’t even a shock to learn that she wouldn’t fight her punishment. “I was not aware (that LBC was unlicensed), but in the end this is the verdict and I accept it,” Reuters quotes al-Yami as saying. “I don’t want to appeal.”
No, the only aspect of al-Yami’s case that raises my eyebrows is this: Early Monday morning, the Canadian Press broke the news that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has stepped in to defend the journalist. Donna Abu-Nasr reports that “the king waived the sentence and ordered al-Yami’s case and that of another journalist — a pregnant woman also accused of involvement in the program — be referred to an Information Ministry committee.” It certainly bodes well for women in the country that the controversial Saudi leader (who Reuters notes “has begun to reform education and the judiciary in recent years, partly to discourage Islamic militancy”) was willing to defy the nation’s ultra-conservative clerics in an obvious case of guilt by association. But then, the king’s women’s rights record has always been shoddy, at best. And since the international press picked up on al-Yami’s story in a big way, the move may primarily be a play to improve Saudi Arabia’s public image.
It’s also heartening to see King Abdullah — for whatever reason — stand up for greater freedom of the press. “This is the first case in which a journalist was tried at a court of summary jurisdiction for an offense relating to the nature of his or her profession,” Sulaiman al-Jumaie, the lawyer who defended Abdul-Awad, told Reuters. Had the king upheld al-Yami’s sentence, the decision might have set a precedent for further persecution of journalists.
Although this case ended well, al-Yami’s conviction does raise some questions worth pursuing. For one thing, it’s notable that she and another woman appear to be the only journalists charged in connection with the incident. Of course, the official reasons for al-Yami’s trial range from her employment at an unlicensed network to the apparently bogus suggestion that she aided in ”preparing the program and advertising it on the Internet.” But what the ordeal really smacks of is yet another attempt at deterring women from entering the workforce. With that in mind, al-Yami’s victory feels particularly sweet.