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Saudi censorship blurs lines between journalism, activism

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has decreed several laws that censor the press. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Since the surprise Arab uprisings of 2011, the Saudi government has worked assiduously to ensure it has all the tools of censorship it needs to control dissent. These tools--a combination of special courts, laws, and regulatory authorities--are starting to fire on all cylinders. The result has been a string of arrests and prosecutions in recent months of independent and dissident voices.

The first step came in January 2011 with new regulations for online media that could be used to restrict coverage, including applying the kingdom's already highly repressive press law to online media. Shortly after, the Ministry of Culture and Information began blocking local news websites that failed to register, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Saudi press law became even more repressive in April that year, when King Abdullah decreed several amendments designed to punish any publication of materials deemed to contravene Sharia law, impinge on state interests, promote foreign interests, harm public order or national security, or enable criminal activity.

In 2012, Human Rights Watch reported that the Saudis' Specialized Criminal Court, established in 2008 for terrorism cases, is "increasingly used to try peaceful dissidents and rights activists on politicized charges and in proceedings that violate the right to a fair trial." CPJ research shows that several defendants in the court have been accused of press-related charges, especially for their coverage of anti-government protests in the Eastern Province of the country. 

Then in the first three months of this year, the government issued a new anti-terrorism law and accompanying regulations that, according to Human Rights Watch, employ vague and overly broad provisions "to criminalize virtually any expression or association critical of the government and its understanding of Islam." The law also beefed up the Specialized Criminal Court by granting it the ability to hear unchallenged testimony in the absence of the defendant or the defendant's lawyer.

And last month, the General Commission for Audiovisual Media, established in 2012, announced it will monitor YouTube content to ensure Saudi contributors adhere to government guidelines, according to Al-Arabiya.  The stakes are high for Saudis, who are among the highest per-capita consumers of YouTube videos in the world. 

All of these steps boil down to a simple two-pronged strategy. One, make sure anyone sharing information over any medium, online or offline, is subject to government censorship. And two, make sure there are enough vague regulations that the government can arbitrarily apply the law to anyone who steps out of line. Journalists, human rights defenders, and average citizens have all been caught in the resulting dragnet.

Consider this partial sample of arrests and prosecutions in only the past few months:

  • On March 4, news reports said the Specialized Criminal Court increased the sentences on appeal for Habib Ali al-Maatiq and Hussein Malik al-Salam, who covered the protest movement in the Eastern Province as managers of the critical news website Al-Fajr Cultural Network. Al-Maatiq and Al-Salam were arrested in February 2012 and are now sentenced to two and five years imprisonment, respectively.
  • On March 5, the Specialized Criminal Court upheld the conviction of human rights defender Mikhlif al-Shammari, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. He was sentenced to five years in prison, a 10-year travel ban starting the day of his release, and a lifetime ban on writing and media appearances. Among his charges, al-Shammari is accused of inciting divisions within society, harming the reputation of the kingdom, and sedition stemming from his criticism of government officials and religious leaders in the media. Al-Shammari remains out of jail pending an appeal.
  • On April 17, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced human rights defender Fadhel al-Manasef to 15 years imprisonment, a fine of 100,000 riyals (approximately US$26,660) and a 15-year travel ban to begin after the prison sentence, according to news reports. Among multiple charges against him, the court said al-Manasef "produced, stored and disseminated what would be prejudicial against public order and morals" on social media, photographed protests and posted the pictures to incite chaos, wrote articles "unfair and abusive" toward the government, and cooperated with foreign media to incite chaos and sow discord in the nation. He has been imprisoned since October 2, 2011, according to Front Line Defenders.
  • On April 24, Al-Watan On Line correspondent Mansour al-Mazhem was sentenced to seven days in jail and a 500-riyal fine (approximately US$132) for tweeting about extended power outages in a regional prison, according to news reports. Al-Mazhem had reported on Twitter and later for Al-Watan On Line that prison wards in Rafha had gone without power and heat for five days in the middle of a cold snap in December. Al-Mazhem was convicted under Article 3 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law, which stipulates up to a year in prison for defamation on "information technology devices," the website said.
  • On May 6, the Specialized Criminal Court sentenced Jalal Mohamed al-Jamal to five years imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 riyals (approximately US$13,330), according to local news reports. Al-Jamal, a manager for the Al-Awamia news website, had been arrested on February 25, 2012 on accusations of opposing the state and inciting for its downfall in connection with his coverage of pro-reform demonstrations in the Eastern Province. He was released last year and remains out of jail pending an appeal.
  • On May 7, the Jeddah Criminal Court sentenced activist Raif Badawi to 10 years imprisonment, 1,000 lashes and a 1 million riyal fine (approximately US$267,000) for insulting Islam by creating a website to discuss religion and liberal values, according to news reports. His lawyer and brother-in-law, Waleed Abulkhair, is himself in prison as he faces trial in front of the Specialized Criminal Court on charges including disloyalty to the king and defaming the reputation of the kingdom for his human rights work.

These are but a few examples of how the Saudi government has used its latest tools of censorship to embolden its red lines and heighten the costs for crossing them. Notably, the majority of the defendants above are not professional journalists, but all of their cases relate to the gathering, production, and distribution of news. By squeezing the traditional press to the point where the mere act of independent reporting becomes a form of resistance, the Saudi government has only further blurred the line between journalism and activism. Today, all Saudis who straddle that line find themselves under threat.  

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