Since the Wikileaks website began posting leaked documents from the Saudi Arabian government, the issue of the Kingdom financing Egyptian media channels, journalists and researchers has garnered major attention.
While the first group of documents released on the website on June 19 contained details regarding funding requests by pro-regime journalist Mostafa Bakry and religious preacher Amr Khalid, unpublished documents received by Mada Masr, upon an agreement with Wikileaks, has shed light on new names and details.
Requests for funding from the Saudi government varied, and in some cases was in exchange for writing articles, the fees for which were collected from the embassy.
One of the documents, titled “Bill of the representative of Dar al-Helal Institution,” is a memo raised by the head of the media affairs department at the Saudi Foreign Ministry to the deputy minister of culture and media in the Kingdom, requesting the disbursement of a check of US$68,000 to the state-owned Egyptian Dar al-Helal in February 2012 “for publishing a series of weekly articles throughout the pilgrimage season 1432 H on the achievements of Saudi Arabia in renovating and expanding the two holy mosques and other recent projects.”
During the period referred to in the cables, writer Abdel Qader Shohaieb was head of the board of Al-Helal institution, while Hamdi Rizk, a staunch supporter of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government, was editor-in-chief of Al-Mosawar, one of its publications. Al-Helal is considered one of the oldest media publishing houses in Egypt and the region.
Other publications were not as successful in collecting funds in exchange for publishing articles favoring the Kingdom, especially when the request for funding came after publishing without prior coordination.
In an undated cable titled, “Apology to Al-Hayat Egyptian newspaper,” the Ministry of Culture and Media addressed the Kingdom’s embassy in Cairo after “the Ministry of Culture and Media received a letter from Mr. Mohamed Omar al-Shatby, chair of the board and editor-in-chief of the lesser known Egyptian Al-Hayat newspaper, accompanied by copies of the newspaper and 5000 SR, for publishing an article on the occasion of the 81st national day, as well as a request for disbursal.” The Ministry of Culture replied that it did not commission the article and added, “No official from the newspaper had contacted it before publishing to explain the plans of the newspaper or clarify its views, and the Ministry of Culture wishes to inform the person concerned thereof in a manner that is deemed appropriate.”
The editor-in-chief of Al-Nahar Egyptian privately owned newspaper was more direct in requesting financial support for his newspaper from the Saudis. In a cable titled, “Very urgent: Osama Sharshar,” the Saudi Foreign Ministry requested information regarding the newspaper from its embassy in Cairo after “the Ministry of Culture and Media received a request from Mr. Osama Sharshar to allow the distribution of his newspaper in the Kingdom and receipt of annual financial support in exchange for a propaganda campaign about the Kingdom.” The very urgent cable further reads, “We hope to be provided with sufficient information concerning the newspaper, its management, sources of funding, and possibilities for dealing with it and allowing its distribution in the Kingdom, as well as your own views regarding the request.” Neither the published documents nor those received by Mada Masr include the embassy’s reply to that request of information from the newspaper, the slogan of which is, “Biased…only towards the truth.”
Yasser Barakat, editor-in-chief of the privately owned weekly AlMougaz on the other hand seems to have made an unsuccessful, albeit more creative, attempt in 2012 to receive money in exchange for not publishing information he claims to have received concerning the Saudi royal family.
Barakat requested a personal meeting with the king or at least the Kingdom’s ambassador in Cairo, threatening to publish “information” he received if his request was not granted. According to a cable, exclusively published by Mada Masr, from Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal to the Saudi minister of culture and media, the “chair of the board and editor-in-chief of the Egyptian Al-Mougaz newspaper expressed his wish to the legal adviser at the embassy to arrange his visit to the Kingdom to be honored with a meeting with the Servant of the Two Holy Mosques for an urgent and confidential matter; and that if he does not arrange this meeting or a meeting with His Excellency in Cairo, he will have no choice but to publish what he has.” Faisal added: “The embassy noted that in its 301 issue, the newspaper published an article that is abusive of the Kingdom, containing many lies and fallacies, and His Excellency the ambassador informed that the newspaper is one of the yellow papers with very low distribution and that the person concerned and his newspaper do not have any importance in Egyptian media circles. The ambassador of the Kingdom believes it is best to ignore him.”
Mada Masr also received a subsequent cable with the reply of the foreign minister to the request of the editor-in-chief of Al-Mougaz. The cable, which was addressed to the Saudi ambassador in Cairo, classified “confidential,” contains the evaluation of the newspaper by the Ministry of Culture and Media. “The Ministry of Culture and Media supports the view of His Excellency the ambassador concerning the newspaper and its owner, since the newspaper depends on fake sensationalization, including publishing content about sex, and fabricating news, positions and inaccurate views to attract attention. The Ministry of Culture and Media believes that the aim of the request by the editor-in-chief and chair of the board to meet the Servant of the Two Holy Mosques or His Excellency the Cairo ambassador is for financial blackmail only. Accordingly the suggestion to ignore him, what he publishes or the fantasy stories he invents, is a correct one,” the Ministry’s response reads.
Rejection was also the fate of a newspaper called Middle East Observer, which submitted a proposal to the Saudi Ministry of Culture to translate and publish the media supplement published in state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper on August 14, 2012 into English, on Saudi Arabia’s development of its pilgrimage sites for a total cost of US$6000. However, Mada Masr received the reply that the head of media affairs at the Saudi Foreign Ministry sent to the Ministry of Culture, which stated, “The embassy of His Highness in Cairo informed us that the Middle East Observer is not well known, its distribution is marginal and the main aim of its request is to obtain advertisement. Also, with regards to the advertising plan for the expansion of the Holy Mosque, it has already been published in 16 publications representing the most widely distributed newspapers in Egypt (enclosed is a copy of Al-Ahram newspaper with said advertisement), according to information received from the embassy in Cairo.”
The Oil and Gas World magazine was more fortunate, in the meantime. The Foreign Ministry requested from the Cairo embassy information regarding the request for support from the magazine. The embassy replied in February 2012 that the executive chair of the magazine “Mr. Mohamed Hassan Salem is an expert in energy economics and is currently the chair of the board of the magazine as well as the chair of the Middle East Center for Energy Information, used to work in Kuwait and OPEC, and is a renowned personality in the field of energy with relations with specialists and officials in that field in several Arab countries. Furthermore, his attitude as well as the magazine are positive towards the Kingdom.”
The year 2012, when journalists submitted most of the funding requests mentioned in the cables, was also the year when the Saudi embassy in Cairo decided to contract journalist Mohamed Mostafa Sherdi to work as a media advisor at the embassy and to set the foundations for its media office through the “recruitment of a group of prominent Egyptian media personnel.” At present Sherdi is chair of the board of the Wafd newspaper, the mouthpiece of the pro-regime party by the same name. He is a former MP, used to head the Wafd bloc in Parliament, and was a member of the parliamentary committee of foreign affairs. He also took part in the broadcast of “Al-Qahira Al-Youm” (Cairo Today) program on the Orbit Saudi channel, and is currently the presenter of the “90 Minutes” program on the privately owned Al-Mehwar channel.
In a cable dated April 5, 2012, the Saudi ambassador informs the foreign minister that “the media office has been developed as per the order of your Excellency and an agreement was made, after your approval, with Egyptian media person Mohamed Sherdi to recruit a group of prominent Egyptian media personnel to work therein, including Mrs. Dina Moussa.” The ambassador adds, “Eventually I shall try to replace Egyptian employees with Saudi employees with media experience if feasible and over long periods of time. Your Excellency is aware of the difficulty in that regard.”
Last week Dina Moussa, a presenter at CBC Extra channel, said she was not one of the media figures mentioned in the cables and that it is someone who shared a similar name with her.
The head of the media department at the Foreign Ministry had addressed the ministerial financial directorate on March 22, 2012 “concerning compensation for expenses spent in setting up the media office in the embassy through contracting Mr. Mohamed Sherdi.” The expenses sheet provided by the Saudi ambassador shows that the six month contract with Sherdi amounted to US$90,000 followed by a contract of US$200,000 for 2012. The same document reveals a contract between the embassy and “Egyptian poll companies” for the same period in exchange of US$85,000.