Hussein Al-Awadhi: “I think of our problems as challenges!” [Archives:1999/19/Interview]

May 10 1999

Almost all countries have their own news gathering and disseminating agencies – either controlled by the state or by large private companies. The fight over control of information flow is an old one, and there have been many arguments on this issue. The debates of the 1980s in the UNESCO and other circles are still not a distant memory.
As the world develops a more information-based civilization, the ability to influence is increasingly through control of information flows. Fully aware of this reality, the Republic of Yemen has embarked on improving its news gathering and disseminating network – Saba News Agency (SNA). Towards that end, one of the critical decisions has been to appoint an able person to lead the SNA.
Mr. Hussein Dhaifallah Al-Awadhi, the new chairman of SNA, has an MA in Journalism from Maryland University in the USA. His earlier background has been in political science.
His work experience is broad and impressive. He served as Director of Parliament’s Hearing Session during 1977-79, then he served for two years as Director-General of Ibb Governorate. His longest association, however, was with sports. First as Director-General of Sports Reporting (1980-94), and second as Secretary-General of the National Olympics Committee (1994-99).
Ismail Al-Ghabiry of Yemen Times talked to Mr. Al-Awadhi and filed the following interview.
Q: How did you find SNA when you took over recently?
A: I am sorry to say that it was ina pitiful state of affairs. In spite of reasonable resources, the organization had not represented itself adequately. I think the problem is basically that the people formerly in charge were ignorant of their role. They were oblivious to the power of information, as well as to their duty and the services expected of the agency.
The pleasant surprise to me, however, was that I found it to possess many capable and excellent staff in the journalism. It has a more than adequate central office building, and rather modern equipment. In other words, we do have the factors that will give us the role and success we aspire for.
In a very short while, we should be able to show new achievements and make a more visible contribution. Time is on our side, and we only need a short while only. We start a new phase and we are embarking with full confidence to go about developing our services.
Q: You sound like you have a clear plan of action. Can you share with us some of your future plans?
A: We have already started. The first steps are of a practical nature. We area news gathering and disseminating agency. So the first thing to do is to improve the agency’s service in this field. We want to compete with other news agencies by offering more useful, more up to-date and more accurate information about what is going on. We have a visible comparative advantage, at least as far as news on Yemen goes.
In the last few years, the work of news agencies has seen a lot of development. Many new services and facilities have been introduced. SNA has tried to keep pace with these developments, including internet facilities.
We also have four reporters worldwide – one in each of Cairo, Canada, Washington DC, and Horn of Africa. The idea is to gather information and news, mostly as related to Yemen.
We are going to have more reporters in other parts of the world. We are going to start our press unit by the end of current May, in order to improve the agency’s publications. We will start news broadcasting through satellite channels and introduce new services to subscribers. We are planing to improve remuneration of our personnel.
We have just instructed changes in the existing computer network to avoid the Y2K crisis. We have also installed new programs to provide more advanced and detailed business news. We are going to establish a press center before the year is out. This will help Yemeni, Arab and foreign stringers and correspondents in their dispatches.
In want to stress that steps to implement all these decisions have already been initiated.
Q: How many people work for the agency today?
A: We have about 400 employees. Unfortunately the news-related professional staff makes up only about 10%. The rest are either administrative or support personnel.
Over-staffing is a problem in all government bodies. But we are trying to convert this liability into an asset. We have started discussions to train and re-train our personnel. This will allow us to put our people to more effective use. In other words, instead of looking at the large number of redundant personnel as a problem, we will try to re-structure our work while at the same time re-train our people so that performance is enhanced. This will take some time, but we have to start.
Q: Technology has made news available to all. What specific and unique service is Saba News Agency going to provide?
A: We know that technology has made information more accessible to all. People now can retrieve all kind of information at the tip of their fingers. That is why we are moving slowly into providing additional services.
For example, we will offer more extended analysis explaining the meaning and implication of news reports, we will provide special documentation and up to date news. We will cater to special-need customers especially in highly technical fields. For example, we are working to improve our services through expanded business reporting, enhanced sports coverage, and new reports on trends in music, fashion, arts, etc.
Q: These are new fields. Do you plan to start new sections or how do you want to go about the organizational structure of your agency?
A: We have already started reforming the different sections of the agency. We pay attention to those fields which our subscribers and customers are interested in. We now have political, economic and sports sections. I have given instructions for more detailed breakdowns. We are also interested in establishing new departments, as our efforts evolve.
Of course, we are looking at a couple of years down the road. We have to do things gradually and smoothly.
Q: Have you considered coordinating with Arab and international news agencies? What are the possible areas of cooperation?
A: As a matter of fact, SNA has cooperation agreements with many Arab agencies. We all come together under the Association of Arab News Agencies umbrella. We also have strong cooperation with many friendly agencies. Exchange of information is the foundation of this relationship. Moreover, we exchange visits and programs, particularly in training our cadres. Our most visible cooperation is with the Middle East News Agency (MENA) of Egypt. We have extended an invitation to Mr. Mahfood Al-Ansari, Chairman of MENA, who will be visiting us later this month.
Internationally, our contact has been rather limited. This is a potential growth area for our future efforts.
Q: How many local stringers and correspondents do you have?
A: We have reporters in all the governorates of the republic. So, we do cover the whole country. In addition, we have in-house local and Arab professional journalists who are active in analyzing daily events. The agency covers all local news around the clock. It provides full coverage of events through the network.
Q: You have an English news bulletin?
A: Yes, we do have an English daily bulletin. This service is also available on the internet. We are now considering expanding our foreign editorial department to include other foreign languages.
Q: As a government body, do you have constraints in terms of how you can report the news?
A: As a government body, we have some clear guidelines for our work. Our basic mandate is to report the news from an official point of view.
Having said that, there is a lot of room to improve on the present format. We have lots of possibilities that have not been explored in the past,because people wanted to do the minimum necessary for the job.
I want to insist that if we want to compete with other sources of information, the news we provide must be reasonable and must attract interest. People will link up and access only those sources which satisfy their needs. We have to overcome the traditional propaganda approach. Otherwise, we will simply become redundant.
Q: What are the main obstacles you face?
A: The obstacles are of a minor nature. There is no business that has no problems. Especially this field faces problems all the time. I want to take a positive outlook to these problems. I want to think of them as challenges rather than problems. Better still, I want to think of them as the spices that add flavor to our work.
I think we can use all the help and cooperation we can get from all sides, especially the colleagues in the media. This will increase our collective abilities to serve our audiences.