Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
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The media environment in Saudi Arabia remained among the most repressive in the Arab world in 2010. The 1992 Basic Law does not provide for press freedom, and certain provisions of the law allow authorities to exercise broad powers to prevent any act that may lead to disunity or sedition. The 49 provisions of the 1963 Publishing and Printing Law govern the establishment of media outlets and the rights and responsibilities of journalists, and stipulate penalties for press violations, such as fines and imprisonment. According to the official media policy, the press should be a tool to educate the masses, propagate government views, and promote national unity. Avoiding criticism of the royal family, Islam, or religious authorities is an unwritten policy that is followed routinely. Media outlets in Saudi Arabia are administered by the Ministry of Culture and Information, which uses laws and royal decrees to restrict media freedom. Nevertheless, Saudi officials have allowed the media to express a moderate level of criticism of the government in recent years, and journalists continued to test the boundaries in 2010 by raising issues previously considered off-limits. For example, following devastating floods in Jeddah that killed 123 Saudis in November, many journalists openly criticized the government’s handling of the crisis, and authorities showed an unusual degree of tolerance for dissenting views.
Journalists can be fined or imprisoned for publishing material deemed objectionable by the authorities, and self-censorship is widespread as a result. On May 17, the editor in chief of Al-Watan, Jamal Khashoggi, resigned under alleged pressure from government officials who objected to the newspaper’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious establishment. In late October, Fahd al-Jukhaidib, a correspondent for Al-Jazira, was sentenced to two months in prison and 50 lashes for allegedly “instigating protests” because of a 2008 article detailing citizens’ struggles with frequent power outages in Qubba and a protest in front of the government-owned electric company. And in December, law professor and civil rights activist Mohammed Abdallah al-Abdulkarim was arrested and detained for an online article he wrote describing the political divisions within the royal family and King Abdullah’s failing health. He remained imprisoned at year’s end. Additionally, journalists may also be subject to extralegal intimidation or even death threats for publishing material that is perceived to be sexually offensive or insulting to Islam. In recent years, Saudi clerics have issued fatwas calling for the killing of journalists accused of apostasy. However, there were few cases of physical harassment or violence against journalists in 2010.
The Saudi government has been known to directly censor both local and international media, confiscating print runs and shutting down newspapers temporarily or permanently. All journalists must register with the Ministry of Culture and Information, and foreign journalists face visa obstacles and restrictions on freedom of movement. Elections to the governing board of the Saudi Journalists Association are heavily influenced and controlled by the ministry. Female journalists in Saudi Arabia face multiple forms of gender discrimination such as lesser pay, discouragement from working as freelancers, and limitations requiring them to report solely on topics related to women, family, and children. The government also blacklists authors and specific books deemed politically controversial or sexually offensive. During the Riyadh International Book Fair on March 6, Saudi authorities confiscated all of the works by Abdellah al-Hamid, a well-known political activist and longtime critic of the royal family.
There are 10 daily newspapers in Saudi Arabia, and although all are privately owned, most owners are associated with either the government or members of the royal family. Members of the royal family also own two popular London-based dailies, Asharq al-Aswat and Al-Hayat, that serve a wider Arab audience. Broadcast media are also controlled by the government, which owns and operates all domestic television and radio stations. Satellite television has become widespread despite its illegal status and is an important source of foreign news; nevertheless, much of the satellite industry is controlled by Saudi investors and is respectful of local sensibilities.
Only 41 percent of Saudi residents used the internet in 2010, and the rate of internet penetration is relatively low compared to other Gulf countries. The Saudi government is one of the most restrictive censors of online material in the region. 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 users and manages the connections between the national and international internet, with all privately owned service providers linked to the main server at KACST. Through KACST, 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 recorded. E-mail and chat rooms are also reportedly monitored by the Saudi Telecommunications Company, and the government temporarily blocked BlackBerry smartphone users from accessing e-mail, instant messaging, and web browsing in August 2010. A 2001 cabinet resolution prohibits internet users from publishing or obtaining content that is “contrary to the state or its system” and a 2006 law criminalizes internet-based defamation. In September, the Ministry of Information proposed a new law that would require online newspapers, blogs, and forums to obtain licenses from the government in order to operate, but the regulations would not take effect until January 2011. Journalists and bloggers strongly condemned the proposed legislation, which would significantly increase the government’s oversight of online expression.
Given the restricted environment for print and broadcast media, there has been a significant rise in the number of Saudi blogs in recent years, totaling an estimated 5,000 in 2010. The Saudi government has increasingly responded by blocking select blogs and harassing bloggers. On May 15, the human rights activist and blogger Mekhlef al-Shammari was arrested for criticizing Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious establishment. The authorities also continued to block blogs, websites, and pages on the Twitter microblogging service that comment on political, social, religious, and human rights issues. On October 12, the government blocked the website Elaph after it published U.S. diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks that were embarrassing to the Saudi royal family. On November 13, the social networking site Facebook was blocked for a day after users published content that “crossed a line,” according to Saudi authorities.