RIYADH (Middle East Eye) – Journalists at Vice have been left dismayed by revelations that the media company secretly organized a music festival in Saudi Arabia, despite its promises to not work with the Saudi government due to human rights concerns, saying the reports were “difficult reading”.
The Azimuth music festival, whose costs were subsidized by a branch of the Saudi government, was estimated to have earned Vice a whopping $20mn.
The highly lucrative deal, which was first reported by the Guardian on Tuesday, came as a surprise to many of its employees, as the company announced in 2018 that it paused all its operations in Saudi Arabia following the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Middle East Eye has spoken to multiple Vice employees under the condition of anonymity. They were all highly disappointed to learn about the deal, which had been kept secret from them, and condemned Vice’s involvement in the festival.
“I’m really disappointed that Vice is involved in trying to whitewash Saudi’s global image and its rebranding, especially given what happened to a prominent Washington Post journalist,” one employee told MEE.
The event took place in the desert around the city of al-Ula in March 2020, just as Covid-19 began to take hold. It promised to merge East and West with a mixture of music, food and culture.
“It’s not just whitewashing,” said one of the employees. “It seems like Vice is making serious money from this, which shows how little they care about where their money comes from.”
Contractors who organized the festival through Vice’s creative marketing agency had to sign non-disclosure agreements, according to the Guardian.
“The details of this story make incredibly difficult reading for the journalists at Vice who work diligently to report on all aspects of the regime in Saudi Arabia, including its brutal bombing campaign in Yemen, which created one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises,” said another employee.
Rights groups have routinely pointed to human rights abuses and the war in Yemen, where a Saudi-led bombing campaign has contributed to a death toll of over 300,000, as reasons to shun Riyadh’s attempts at remarketing itself as a free and safe country.
Last year, Vice was accused by Code Pink, a female-led, grassroots activist group, of bias in its reporting on the Yemen war. The group said that one of its Yemen documentaries failed to report in a balanced way on the Saudi-led blockade of the country, with more than 2,800 people signing a petition condemning the report.