Freedom of the Press
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The media environment in Saudi Arabia remained among the most repressive in the Arab world, and in 2011, the government moved to tighten the reins on the already heavily censored and state-dominated press. Article 39 of Saudi Arabia’s Basic Law of 1992 does not guarantee freedom of the press, and certain provisions of the law allow authorities to exercise broad powers to prevent any act that may lead to disunity or sedition. It also prohibits publishing materials that harm national security or that “detract from a man’s dignity.” The 2000 Press and Publications Act governs the establishment of media outlets and stipulates penalties for press violations, such as fines and imprisonment. In April, as uprisings in across the Middle East and North Africa gained momentum, the Saudi monarchy issued a decree banning the reporting of news that contradicted Sharia (Islamic law), undermined national security, promotes foreign interests, or slandered religious leaders. The decree also amended several articles of the 2000 press law, allowing authorities to impose lifetime bans on journalists and to levy fines of up to $133,000 for violations of the law. Other amendments barred publishing anything harmful to the state or investigating trials without first obtaining permission from legal authorities. Saudi journalists and global press freedom groups criticized the amendments for being too vague, claiming that they were likely to impinge on journalistic freedoms. In July, an antiterrorism law was proposed that included a minimum 10-year sentence for “questioning the integrity” of the king or crown prince. The law was still pending at year’s end.
Defamation is a criminal offense. Under March 2005’s Royal Decree 1700/Mim Ba, jurisdiction over the media was transferred from the Sharia-based court system to the Ministry of Culture and Information, which is authorized to rule on violations of the Press And Publications Law. However, according to Human Rights Watch, Fahd al-Juhani, an editor at Al-Watan newspaper, faces criminal defamation charges before a Sharia court related to a 2009 article he published under a pseudonym on the news website Al-Weeam, in which he alleged that a local health inspector had attempted to extort money from shopkeepers in the town of Huta. Since December 2010, he has appeared before a Sharia court five different times, and the judge has refused to transfer jurisdiction, or to reduce the charge to a civil suit. The case remained unresolved at year’s end.
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. Journalists can be fined or imprisoned by the Ministry of Culture and Information for publishing material deemed objectionable under a wide criteria, and self-censorship is common as a result, although journalists have been increasingly testing the boundaries of what is officially allowed. Additionally, the Saudi government has been known to directly censor both local and international media. In December 2011, Muhammad al-Tunisi, the editor of the Saudi newspaper Okaz, was dismissed from his post by Saudi authorities. The dismissal was a result of his decision to publish an investigative report detailing the high consumption of the khat drug plant in Jazan, in southern Saudi Arabia. His case remained pending at year’s end.
There were relatively few cases of physical harassment of journalists; however, reporters frequently face difficulty covering the news. Throughout 2011, authorities arrested activists to prevent uprisings similar to those taking place elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. The local press barely covered the failed “Day of Rage” in March, which had a tiny turnout in the face of a huge police presence. The English-language Arab News, for example, called it “a damp squib” and gave equal coverage to a Facebook campaign denouncing the unidentified organizers. Also in March, Saudi authorities withdrew the accreditation of a senior Reuters correspondent, Ulf Laessing. The government alleged that Laessing’s coverage of a recent protest in Saudi Arabia was erroneous, but offered no details to substantiate its claim. Laessing was then ordered to exit the country. There were no reports of arrests of journalists in 2011. However, Egyptian internet activist Yousef Ashnawy has been in a Saudi prison since 2001, and he remained in custody at year’s end. Authorities refused to release information about his condition.
There are 13 daily newspapers in Saudi Arabia. All are privately owned but controlled by individuals affiliated with the royal family. Members of the royal family also control two popular London-based dailies, Asharq al-Aswat and Al-Hayat, that serve a wider Arab audience. Broadcast media are controlled by the government, which owns and operates all terrestrial television and radio stations. Satellite television has become widespread and is an important source of foreign news (despite the fact that satellite dishes are technically illegal); nevertheless, much of the satellite industry, including the popular Al-Arabiya 24-hour news channel, is controlled by Saudi investors and is respectful of local sensibilities.
Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia at the end of 2011 was about 48 percent and the country was in the top five in the world for mobile downloads. As a result, many Saudis have turned to the web to express political opinions and expose government corruption. However, during the year, authorities moved to crack down on this phenomenon with increasing regularity. In January, the government adopted new internet restrictions that require websites and bloggers to obtain permits to publish their material. The provisions also mandated that editors of online publications be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Information. In May, a website that praised a woman for flouting the ban on women driving and posting her experience on the internet was shut down by the government. Authorities arrested three documentarians after portions of their film highlighting poverty in Saudi Arabia were posted on YouTube. In July, Saudi authorities blocked a website that highlighted mistreatment of foreign workers. Authorities blocked the online version of the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar after it published a story about protests in Bahrain. They also blocked Amnesty International’s website following its posting of an article criticizing the draft antiterrorism law. Several Shiite bloggers were arrested in April 2011 and accused of joining protests in the oil-rich Eastern Province.