Saudi Arabia | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Freedom of the Press 2006

2006 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

79

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

28

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

23

Saudi Arabia has few safeguards to protect press freedom. Article 39 of the Basic Law exhorts the media to promote unity and bans material that "may compromise the security of the State and its public image." While the 1982 Royal Decree for Printed Material and Publications upholds freedom of expression, it restricts press freedom by limiting the range of topics permitted to be covered. Criticism of the royal family and the religious authorities is forbidden. Violations are considered criminal offenses, punishable with imprisonment and/or fines. In January, Saudi authorities detained Mohammed al Oushan, editor of the weekly Al-Mohayed, following his criticism of the government's attitude toward Saudi prisoners held at Guantanamo. Authorities then refused to confirm his arrest. Created in 2003 with the stipulation that its decisions are subject to veto by the Ministry of Information, the Saudi Journalists Association has been largely ineffective. All journalists must register with the Ministry of Information, and although restrictions have eased in recent years, visas for foreign journalists are difficult to obtain. Once in the country, journalists must be accompanied by a government chaperone.

The print media are privately owned but publicly subsidized and often closely associated with members of the royal family. Newspapers are created by royal decree, and the government appoints or approves editors and publishers. Government authorities can fire journalists and editors who publish articles deemed offensive. Official censorship is common, as is self-censorship. There are 10 daily newspapers, and they generally follow the editorial line of the state-owned and -controlled Saudi Press Agency. Two Saudi-owned London-based dailies, Al-Sharq al-Awsat and Al-Hayat, are read widely, though they also tend to comply with government proscriptions on sensitive subjects. Nevertheless, recent years have seen newspapers report without prior authorization on previously taboo issues, including domestic crime, corruption, women's rights, religious extremism, terrorism, minority rights, and elections. Saudi newspapers featured extensive coverage of the 2005 municipal elections.

The government controls broadcast media. There is no private radio or television broadcasting from Saudi Arabia except for MBC-FM, a radio station owned by the late king's brother-in-law; however, there are reports that the government plans to privatize other radio stations. Satellite television has become widespread despite its illegal status and is an important source of foreign news. In January 2004, the government launched an all-news satellite channel, Al-Ikhbariya, to compete with Al-Jazeera, which has been barred since 2003 from establishing a local office and covering the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Like print media, broadcast media face significant restrictions and exercise self-censorship. In an example of editorial censorship exceeding official bounds, in August TV talk show host Abdel Rahman al-Hussein was fired by his director following a show in which guests criticized the Saudi religious police; however, the minister of information then intervened to have him reinstated. The government continues to censor foreign publications and broadcasts, removing objectionable material, including references to politics, pork, alcohol, sex, and religions other than Islam.

The internet is widely available, but the government has employed a sophisticated filtering system to block access to websites deemed morally or politically inappropriate. The Saudi authorities acknowledge blocking more than 400,000 websites. Some users circumvent these controls by accessing servers based in other Gulf States. In October, the government blocked access to blogger.com, a popular blog creation and hosting service. The site was unblocked after two days.