"While we are fighting for other people's rights through our reporting, our own rights have been violated for years," writes Saudi journalist Suzan Zawawi in an article which explores the plight of her fellow journalists in the country. Their working conditions may, however, change thanks to various initiatives taken by Princess Hussa, daughter of Riyadh Emir Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, states the article, originally published by the Saudi Gazette.
While Saudi female journalists are fighting for other people's rights through their writings, their own rights have been violated for years.
However, Princess Hussa, daughter of Riyadh Emir Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz has requested female journalists to submit any complaint they might have regarding their work conditions to her. "I will forward your complaints directly to Prince Salman," promised Princess Hussa during a press conference held Saturday announcing three awards by the Prince Ahmed Bin Salman Institute for Applied Media, for Saudi female journalists.
The awards will be for the best female journalist, the best female writer, a woman pioneer in the print media. Journalists attending the press conference were delighted that they would be finally be recognized and their work appreciated. "I think this is a very good step forward in encouraging women in the media," said Fatima Ba Ismaeel, a journalist for Arabic daily Al-Eqtisadiah.
"Especially in a society that looks down on women pursuing such jobs," said Asma Al-Mohammed, managing editor of the Saudi news page at Arabia.net. Applicants for the awards must be Saudi national writing for a local publication, for at least 2 years and be between 22 -28 years of age.
However, Princess Hussa said that these conditions are still in the primary stage and can be altered. The journalists appreciated the support of Princess Hussa and Prince Salman and said they would take up the offer and send their requests and complaints directly to Princess Hussa.
Low salaries, lack of transportation, health insurance, benefits and training are the biggest violations against female journalist and media professionals in the Kingdom, the Saudi female journalists complained. While a female journalist earns around SR3000-5000 a month, their male counterparts earn double if not more.
"I am always surprised at how low the salaries of journalists are," said Al-Mohammed. "Turki Al-Sedeari, editor-in-chief of Al-Riyadh Arabic daily had said that a newspaper in the Kingdom has to make SR30 million a year to become successful," Al-Mohammed noted.
"Most newspapers make double and even triple this amount per year, but they still pay their reporters and especially their part-timers and freelancers crumbs!"
The majority of print and audio media in the Kingdom relie heavily on freelancers and part-timers, making it very difficult for female journalists to gain a full-time job that includes allowances, health insurance and social security. Fatima Al-Anizi from Radio Riyadh complained about working for 17 years as a freelancer without being hired full-time, supporting her family on a minimal salary. Along with the low amount, she didn't receive her salary on time - and once her salary was delayed for four months, she said.
"There is a hunger among Saudi female journalists to work and there is a hunger for news on Saudi women, so we find ourselves running from one event to another," said Al-Mohammed. "Sometimes we freelancers cover 2-3 events a day and still we are paid chicken feed."
Lack of protection was another problem that journalists as a whole face in the Kingdom, complained Aisha Al-Feefee from Okaz Arabic newspaper. "The Saudi Association for Media and Communication was established four years ago but it has yet to provide any service to us media professionals."
"There is basically nowhere to go if you have a complaint against a news organization," said Feefee. With many of the leading editors in SAMC, journalists do not feel safe to complain to SAMC about their plight, worried that they might have to face the consequences when they get back to the office.
Last year, Anizi along with Wafa Baker Younis, a presenter on Saudi TV Channel 1 had spoken about their plight at the Second Forum of Saudi Women in Media and were fired from their jobs for complaining publicly. Only after the intervention of Prince Salman did the two journalists regain their positions. "Prince Salman was very upset over the repercussions against the two journalists for complaining at a forum that was established to address such issues," said Princess Hussa.
The majority of Saudi female journalists work as freelancers without any health benefits, but even those with full-time positions don't mean that they get treated on par with their male colleagues when it comes to health insurance.. One female journalist was informed by her organization that their health coverage doesn't cover her delivery while it covers a "male employee's delivery."
"I asked them how can male employees ever give birth? They told me they don't but their wives do and their wives are covered," said the journalist who wished to withhold her name. "I asked why the wife of an employee had better rights and coverage than I did - and I was their employee." In addition to low wages, lack of benefits and protection, lack of training is another complaint "Female journalists get into journalism without any training and there's very limited on-the-job training, said Ba Ismaeel. In her 12 years as a journalist for prominent Saudi newspapers, the only training Ba Ismaeel received was what she paid for herself.
Lack of transportation or the very low transportation allowance given to female journalists was also a problem. "Since we can't drive, our news organizations should provide transport - with drivers to take us to and back from field work, or provide us with an allowance that covers our transportation cost," said Ba Ismaeel. Transportation allowances is mostly around SR300 which is very low compared to the SR1,200-1,500 some female journalists pay for a private driver, a company driver or a taxi to take her to conferences and interviews for a month.
Suzan Zawawi is a Saudi journalist who lives in Riyadh and works for the daily Saudi Gazette.