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National Press Club suspends journalist over tough questions for Saudi prince

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Journalist Sam Husseini was suspended from the National Press Club this week over the exchange above with Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal al-Sa’ud. The transcript his here, and here is an excerpt with al-Saud responding to Hussieni’s question “What legitimacy does you regime have?”:

Turki: I advise anybody who has these questions to come to the kingdom and see for themselves. I don’t need to justify my country’s legitimacy. We’re participants in all of the international organizations and we contribute to the welfare of people through aid program not just directly from Saudi Arabia but through all the international agencies that are working throughout the world to provide help and support for people. We admit this, as I said that we have many challenges inside our country and those challenges we are hoping to address and be reformed by evolution, as I said, and not by revolution. So that is the way that we are leading, by admitting that we have shortcomings. Not only do we recognize the shortcomings, but hopefully put in place actions and programs that would overcome these shortcomings. I have mentioned the fact that when you call Saudi Arabia a misogynistic country that women in Saudi Arabia can now not only vote, but also participate as candidates in elections and be members of the Shura Council. And I just refer you to your own experience to your women’s rights, when did your women get right to vote? After how many years since the establishment of the United States did women get to vote in the United States? Does that mean that before they got the vote that United States was an illegitimate country? According to his definition, obviously. So, until, when was it — 1910 when women got to vote — from 1789 to 1910 United States was illegitimate? This is how you should measure things, by how people recognize their faults and try to overcome them.

Husseini: — So are you saying that Arabs are inherently backward? —

Politico has the Press Club’s statement here, and Husseini discusses the National Press Club’s action on his blog:

I should note that there have been tensions at the Press Club before, some with me, some with other journalists. See “Banned from First Amendment Room.” Several years ago, [National Press Club Executive Director Bill McCarren] and I were in the elevator together at the Press Building and he told me that I was causing him a great deal of grief because of my questioning of officials. He said that there were a lot of other places in Washington, D.C. — think tanks and such — that host officials without the officials having to deal with such questioning. I told him I understood his point, and even sympathized to a degree. I wasn’t trying to drive officials away, but that this was the National Press Club, that it should be known for its independence and not be a place where officials would come because they expected to avoid serious scrutiny. I said I thought that events at the Press Club would carry more weight and be more interesting the more critical the questioning was — and that events that were simply flacking for an official were hollow and less deserving of thoughtful attention. I walked away feeling like we had understood each other better. 

Another issue is that tough questioning seems to be done selectively, and of course this is an issue not just at the National Press Club. When individuals who seem at odds with the establishment, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Jeremiah Wright have spoken before to the Press Club, they were very critically questioned. Others, however, are treated rather reverentially. I have participated, and at times benefited from some of this. When the Austrian Neo-Nazi Jörg Haider came to the Club, Hickman, the same moderator at the Turki event, allowed me to give him quite a grilling with several followups — at least four or five, much to my joy — and congratulated me for my efforts afterwords.  During the beginning of Turki’s reply to my question, McCarren continued speaking to me, he had walked right up to me and spoke in a rather obnoxious tone, telling me to let Turki answer the question. I told McCarren that I was simply responding to Turki’s question to me. McCarren continued speaking in an obnoxious manner to me and I said to him “are you threatening me?” He responded: “Absolutely.” We had an exchange after I left the news conference as well. After the event, I sent an email to Hickman asking if he knew where I could get video of the news conference and he replied cordially but could not help provide the video, which I was finally able to obtain after several days. 

Later that afternoon, I got an email with the notice of suspension signed by McCarren. The letter states: “We are suspending your membership for two weeks, effective immediately, due to your conduct at a news conference held at the National Press Club on Tuesday, November 15, 2011. Your action was in direct violation of House Rule 4 and grounds for immediate suspension.

“House Rule No. 4 states: ‘Boisterous and unseemly conduct or language in or about the Club premises or in connection with any Club-sponsored event is prohibited. Any member so offending shall be liable for immediate suspension by any Member of the board or the manager or his designee pending investigation by the board, which shall render final action.’

“This matter will be review ed by the Club’s Ethics Committee. A meeting will be scheduled prior to the end of your two week suspension to discuss your conduct and the violation. The Chairperson of the Ethics Committee will contact you to schedule the meeting.

“In the meantime, you should not come to the Club or use its facilities for any reason.”

The charge is false. I did not engage in “boisterous and unseemly conduct or language” — I engaged in tough journalism with a powerful government official from an autocratic regime that is allied with the U.S. government. This apparently warrants suspension from the National Press Club in Executive Director McCarren’s view.

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This was not a university with kids trying to shout down a speaker; this was a press club which had invited the speaker and granted memberships to the members. The reporter was rather OUTRE. “Mr. ambassador, some critics of the Kingdom say * * *; how do you respond?” and BTW, the ambassaror did already say that there would be (slow) evolution, not revolution, so what did the reporter mean by asking if (in the… Read more »

Based on historical and political context, I offer you the following Translation: Reporter: “What legitimacy does your regime have?” Prince: “Don’t embarrass me in front of these gullible Americans. Saudi Arabia is a flourishing democracy, the ONLY democracy in the Middle East. We’re not perfect, we have a ways to go, but we’re working on it. There, I dodged the question. In your face!” Reporter: “Who do you think you’re bull&@#^$ with your nonsense?” Answer:… Read more »

When the price of Saudi oil goes through the roof, we’ll now know who’s to blame…

“Another issue is that tough questioning seems to be done selectively, and of course this is an issue not just at the National Press Club. When individuals who seem at odds with the establishment, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Jeremiah Wright have spoken before to the Press Club, they were very critically questioned. Others, however, are treated rather reverentially.”

That’s the governing principle of American journalism these days. Maybe it’s always been like that.

Most of you seem to agree that it was OK to suspend a journalist from the National Press Club for asking completely legitimate but tough questions of a Prince from a totalitarian state. If, when asked whether his regime is legitimate he answered in true Borat fashion that women in Saudi Arabia now can drive, he deserved to be asked whether he thought Arabs were backward.