It's no CNN, but Reform TV gives Saudis a new voice

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The Independent Online

Ahmed would only hint over the phone that he had "exciting news", so I had to wait until he came to my house. Settling down with the remote control for my satellite as I poured the tea, he changed the frequency so CNN had been replaced by Reform TV, a new Saudi opposition channel beamed from France and run by Saad al-Faqih, head of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform.

"If you want to know what all the young Saudis are talking about, just watch this for an hour," Ahmed said. CNN it is not in terms of professionalism or sleekness; but that does not bother Ahmed and his friends. For three hours a day, Mr Faqih appears live on Reform TV, taking phone calls and responding to faxes and e-mails.

His bearded face, a symbol of piety, is guaranteed a wide audience here. After a decade in exile, in which he has used every means of communication to promote his anti-House of Saud agenda, Mr Faqih is finally able to talk to Saudis in the privacy of their homes.

Ahmed, who is 22, is wealthy and polite, and prefers speaking English to Arabic. He lives in a huge villa on Jeddah's outskirts. But he is far from satisfied. Before 11 September, he could go to the West once in a while to let his hair down, but now he thinks the world instinctively views him and his fellow Saudis as potential terrorists.

So his focus is on a life he realises will largely have to be spent at home. But in Saudi Arabia, all the leaders are aged over 70, and 70 per cent of its population is under 21, a generation gap that is reflected in the local media. A longstanding joke has it that the sports daily Arriyadiyah is the most popular newspaper because it is the only one that prints the truth. Small wonder Ahmed thinks Mr Faqih is "cool".

Until recently, Saudis were force-fed an unremitting diet of pro-government propaganda in their local media, hard to digest in their search for information. But now, more than 80 per cent of Saudis have satellite TV at home, and most have access to the internet.

Reform TV is the final blow to effective government censorship. Indeed, instead of trying to ban it, articles have appeared in the local press damning it as "divisive" at a time of crisis, when "real patriots" should be concerned about "upholding the principles of national unity". As we watched, Reform TV talked about about King Fahd's favourite son, Abdul Aziz, once the wealthiest teenager in the world. Mr Faqih said the prince had given a $120,000 (£76,000) tip after eating in a Lebanese restaurant, and fled the country after being exposed by Reform TV.

An unnamed princess, one caller claimed, had flown to Europe for a $150,000 haircut. And there was a programme about the religious scholars on whom the government relies for its legitimacy as the upholders of Islamic law, saying they "take bribes to issue edicts".

Ahmed wants radical but peaceful change at home, and he is the kind of citizen the government must win over as it takes on the extremists. But he and his friends are lapping up everything Reform TV has to offer, even if it is only unsubstantiated, albeit entertaining, gossip.

Many Saudi journalists say censorship here is caused by editors unwilling to take full advantage of the new freedom they have been given by the government because they do not want to risk losing the perks that come with the job.

But when Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the reformist Al-Watan newspaper, launched a campaign against the religious establishment, the government sacked him. Saudi editors are damned if they do and damned if they do not, which is why most sit on the fence and nobody reads what they publish.

As the Saudi government continues its crackdown on Islamic militants, it is just realising that Saad al-Faqih has opened up a reformist front that might ultimately prove more effective than bullets and bombs.