Freedom of the Press
Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Saudi Arabia has few safeguards to protect press freedom. Since there is no constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech or of the press, the media are regulated under a 1963 Publishing and Printing Law. The 49 provisions of this law cover the establishment of media outlets, address the rights and responsibilities of journalists, and explain the penalties that can be imposed on them. The lack of a theoretical framework for freedom of the press in Saudi Arabia is due largely to the government’s position on the role of the press in society. The press, according to the government and the conservative religious establishment, is a tool to educate the masses, propagate government views, and promote national unity. Through harsh measures, and with the help of heavy self-censorship, the government and allied clerics are able to overcome all attempts by journalists to exercise limited freedom of action. Criticism of the royal family and the religious authorities is forbidden, and press offenses are punishable by fines and imprisonment. All journalists must register with the Ministry of Information, and foreign journalists face visa obstacles and restrictions on freedom of movement. However, recently there have been marginal improvements for both domestic and foreign journalists, allowing freedom to report on social issues and gesture toward government accountability, but those efforts are, at this point, relatively isolated.
Even when the government has been inclined to permit some freedom of expression, it finds itself at odds with the strong ultraconservative Islamic forces in the kingdom. In many instances, it has been forced to back down. In 2006, several episodes of the very popular television sitcom Tash Ma Tash were canceled after a fatwa was issued against the show amid protests and threats from the ultrareligious Right. An episode criticizing the powerful religious agency tasked with “Promoting the Good and Forbidding the Evil” was canceled as soon as the agency learned of its content.
Journalists in the kingdom face threats, harassment, and detention if they publish material that the authorities deem objectionable. In February 2006, journalist Batal al-Qaws, editor of the privately owned daily Shams, was dismissed from his job after his newspaper published controversial Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad. Among a number of other such incidents, in March journalist Mohsen al-Awajy was detained for 10 days for criticizing the king and Fawaz Turki, a journalist with the daily Arab News newspaper, was dismissed from his job for writing about atrocities committed in East Timor. Separately, writer and women’s rights activist Wajiha al-Howaider was arrested in August, threatened with the loss of her job, and forced to sign a pledge to cease all human rights activities, including writing and talking to the media. These tactics of arrest, interrogation, dismissal, and harassment have forced journalists and editors to practice and enforce extreme levels of self-censorship.
There are 10 daily newspapers in Saudi Arabia, all owned by either the government, members of the royal family, or close associates of the royal family. Broadcast media are also in the grip of the government, which owns and operates all television and radio stations. Satellite television has become widespread despite its illegal status and is an important source of foreign news; nonetheless, much of the satellite industry is controlled by Saudi investors and is respectful of local sensibilities. About 11 percent of Saudi residents used the internet in 2006. King Abdul-Aziz City for Science and Technology (KACST)—a government institution charged with developing and coordinating internet-related policies—is the sole gateway for Saudi internet users and manages the connections between the national and international internet. Although the authorities approved applications for over 40 privately owned internet service providers in 1998, all of them are linked to the main server at KACST. Through this agency, the government continues to block and filter websites deemed offensive, critical, or immoral. Updated lists of undesirable websites are continuously fed to the filters, and users attempting to access banned sites receive warnings and are told that their attempts are being logged. In 2006, the Saudi government approved the first law to combat “electronic crimes,” defined as defamation on the internet and computer hacking. Online journalists are generally subject to the same restrictions as their print colleagues.