Freedom of the Press
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Saudi Arabia has one of the most repressive media environments in the world. The authorities bolstered their efforts to control news and information in 2014 with the passage of expansive antiterrorism legislation and further arrests of regime critics.
Article 39 of the 1992 Basic Law, which covers mass media, does not guarantee freedom of the press, and the authorities are given broad powers to prevent any act that may lead to disunity or sedition. The Basic Law also prohibits publishing materials that harm national security or that “detract from a man’s dignity.” Defamation is a criminal offense, and truth is not a recognized defense in such cases. Any form of expression that insults Islam is potentially punishable by death, as is the crime of apostasy. The 2003 Press and Publications Act governs the establishment of media outlets and stipulates penalties for press violations, such as fines and imprisonment. A 2005 royal decree transferred jurisdiction over the media from the court system to the Ministry of Culture and Information, which is authorized to shut down any outlet that it finds to have violated the press law. In addition, since 2011, all online newspapers and bloggers have been required to obtain a special license from the ministry. In practice, a variety of courts hear cases against traditional and online media outlets.
In 2011, as uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa gained momentum, the monarchy issued a decree banning the reporting of news that contradicts Sharia (Islamic law), undermines national security, promotes foreign interests, or slanders religious leaders. The decree amended several articles of the 2003 press law, allowing authorities to impose lifetime professional bans on journalists and levy fines of up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000) for violations of the law. Other amendments barred publication of anything harmful to the state and the coverage of trials without prior authorization from judicial officials.
A new law that took effect in February 2014, the Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and Its Financing, defines terrorism as any action intended to “insult the reputation of the state,” “harm public order,” or “shake the security of society,” among other vague descriptions. The scope of the law raised concerns that it could be used to criminalize ordinary journalistic activity. In March, the Interior Ministry issued further regulations that allow police to make arrests for virtually any criticism of the government. Article 8 of the regulations bans “promoting” protests, meetings, or group statements, as well as anything that “harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means.” Article 9 targets “sowing discord in society.”
The country’s restrictive legislation is regularly enforced. Throughout 2014, the authorities arrested and prosecuted both professional journalists and prominent users of social media, which have become an important source of news and information given the tight controls on traditional outlets.
In February, a court sentenced Wajdi al-Ghazzawi, owner of the satellite broadcast Al-Fajr Media Group, to 12 years in prison for airing content deemed to have incited sedition and harmed the kingdom’s reputation; he also received a lifetime ban on media appearances and a 20-year travel ban. In March, judicial authorities increased the prison sentences of journalists Habib Ali al-Maatiq and Hussein Malik al-Salam to two and five years, respectively, from one and three years in late 2013. They had been arrested in 2012 for covering protests in Eastern Province for the critical news website Al-Fajr Cultural Network. Al-Salam’s term was increased again to six years in June, while al-Maatiq completed his sentence in August.
In April, Al-Watan On Line journalist Mansour al-Mazhem was sentenced to seven days in jail for writing about power outages in a Saudi prison. He was charged under the defamation provision of a 2007 cybercrime law. In May, the courts sentenced the manager of the news site Al-Awamia, Jalal Mohamed al-Jamal, to five years in prison on charges of opposing the state through coverage of the demonstrations in Eastern Province. In June, photojournalist Jassim al-Safar was sentenced to seven years in prison and a seven-year travel ban for offenses including posting photos and videos on YouTube that could “discredit the kingdom.”
In July, a court upheld the five-year prison term of writer and human rights activist Mikhlif bin Daham al-Shammari, who was convicted in 2013 of “sowing discord” and other violations linked to his social and political commentary. The court also ordered him to not write for the media, and imposed a 10-year travel ban. In September, an appeals court upheld a May decision sentencing Raef Badawi, founder of a liberal internet forum, to 10 years in prison, 1,000 lashes, and a fine of 1 million riyals ($267,000) for insulting Islam. He was also barred from communicating with international media and faced a 10-year travel ban after serving his sentence. Badawi had originally received seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but the penalty was increased after he appealed.
Later in the year, several activists were punished for their commentary on Twitter. They included three prominent lawyers who received prison sentences of five to eight years for criticizing the Justice Ministry, and a women’s rights activist who was arrested after allegedly insulting religious authorities and calling for women to be allowed to drive.
Saudi Arabia has no freedom of information law that provides for public access to state-held information, and officials do not disclose details related to sensitive topics such as government spending and allocations to the royal family. The media have been allowed to observe and report on the functions of some state entities, such as the Shura Council, but access may be arbitrarily withdrawn and is not guaranteed by law.
According to official media policy, the press should be a tool to educate the masses, propagate government views, and promote national unity. The government has been known to directly censor both local and international media, and journalists routinely practice self-censorship and avoid criticism of the royal family, Islam, or religious authorities.
Many Saudis have turned to the internet to express political opinions and expose government corruption. Twitter has become extremely popular in Saudi Arabia, which has as many as 5 million users, about half of whom are considered “active.” Widespread discussion of a topic on Twitter often forces traditional news outlets to cover stories that would otherwise be considered too sensitive.
While it would be both difficult and unpopular to obstruct large, internationally hosted social-media platforms like Twitter, the authorities are able to monitor and block various websites with relative ease. The government aggressively blocks websites it considers immoral, blasphemous, or critical of the regime. Other politically sensitive websites are routinely blocked, including those associated with the country’s disadvantaged Shiite Muslim minority. Protests in Shiite areas are not covered by the local press unless the Ministry of Information releases an official statement.
Physical harassment of journalists is relatively rare. However, both local and foreign reporters frequently face difficulty covering the news in person, especially when trying to access Eastern Province.
More than a dozen daily newspapers publish 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. The government owns and operates all terrestrial television and radio stations. Although satellite dishes are illegal, satellite television has become widespread and is an important source of foreign news. Key regional satellite channels, including the popular Al-Arabiya news channel, are controlled by Saudi investors and adhere to local media norms.
Internet penetration in Saudi Arabia reached nearly 64 percent of the population in 2014. The country also has one of the world’s highest rates of mobile telephone penetration, with about 180 subscriptions for every 100 residents, and many users access the internet via mobile devices. Saudi Arabia also ranks first in the total number of daily YouTube views, according to Google.