PRESS FREEDOM IN THE MEMBER STATES of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)-Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE)-remained constrained by conservative, monarchical regimes. Although private media in these countries enjoy generous budgets and state-of-the-art technology, they face varying constraints on their ability to report news and opinion.
Censorship, self-censorship, and the fear of government reprisal keep most newspapers from antagonizing political leaders or criticizing state policies. In recent years, however, citizens of the Gulf have increasingly enjoyed access to alternative news and information via satellite television and the Internet, making rigid state controls over information seem increasingly obsolete.
Saudi Arabia, the largest and most influential member of the GCC, is one of the most politically closed societies in the world. Dissent is not tolerated, and there are no political parties or democratic elections. Not surprisingly, the press is uncritically supportive of the regime and its policies.
In order to keep close watch over the press, the Saudi Ministry of Information approves the hiring of editors and can dismiss them at will. Papers receive generous government subsidies, increasing their dependence on the state. The authorities monitor foreign publications entering the kingdom, censoring news deemed to offend Islam or cast the kingdom in a negative light. Foreign journalists continue to face difficulty getting into the country, let alone conducting investigative work. These limitations help explain the dearth of general knowledge about domestic Saudi affairs.
The Internet made its Saudi debut in 1999 and has continued to grow. There are an estimated 30 private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the kingdom, and many Internet cafés. However, the government filters all Web content through a proxy server that is supposed to weed out information deemed by authorities to be socially or politically undesirable. In one well-publicized case, authorities banned local access to Yahoo!’s Web site, contending that it contained pornographic material. As in many countries where the government tries to censor the Internet, however, sophisticated computer users find many ways to access blocked sites. For those who can afford it, an international phone call to an ISP outside the country allows completely uncensored Internet use.
On a much bigger scale, the wide availability of satellite dishes has made government efforts to control information seem futile. Though legally banned, satellite dishes are widely available and provide viewers with unfettered access to hard-hitting reporting from stations such as the popular Qatari satellite channel Al-Jazeera, along with other regional and international news media.
The unquestioned dominance of Al-Jazeera as the premier news channel in the Arab world has eroded Saudi Arabia’s considerable influence over regional media. During the 1990s, several pan-Arab publications and broadcast outlets were founded or acquired by Saudi businessmen with links to the royal family. These outlets were noticeably devoid of programming that was critical of the Saudi regime or that reported on issues regarded as sensitive in the kingdom.
Founded in 1996 with a start-up grant of US$140 million from the Qatari government, Al-Jazeera has quickly become the most-watched news channel in the region, winning over viewers with its bold, uncensored coverage. One measure of Al-Jazeera’s success is that the station drew a steady stream of protests from intolerant Arab regimes, including Tunisia, Libya, Iraq, and Egypt. Libya even withdrew its ambassador from Qatar to protest Al-Jazeera’s programming.
In stark contrast to Saudi Arabia and many of its neighbors, Kuwait boasts one of the liveliest presses in the Arab world. Newspapers are frequently aggressive in their coverage of local political affairs and the government, although self-censorship persists on matters pertaining to the emir and high-ranking members of the royal family.
In recent years, there have been several criminal prosecutions of journalists and suspensions of newspapers in Kuwait. In February, the Cabinet suspended the daily Al-Watan for two years and rescinded the license of the daily Al-Siyassi after both papers reported on a rumored royal decree, which in the end turned out to be false, raising military salaries. The emir soon annulled the suspensions, however.
Under Kuwait’s 1961 Press and Publications Law, newspapers can be suspended and journalists jailed for sullying public morals, “disparaging God [and] the prophets,” or violating the national interest.” In 2000, Parliament was considering new amendments to the law that would abolish jail terms and replace them with heavy fines, but the changes had not been enacted by year’s end.
Ten years after the Gulf War, two journalists remained in jail in Kuwait. Fawwaz Muhammad al-Awadi Bessisso and Ibtisam Berto Sulaiman al-Dakhil were imprisoned in June 1991 and later sentenced to life in prison because of their work with the collaborationist newspaper Al-Nida, which was published under the Iraqi occupation. Despite the release of some 15 former Al-Nida journalists since 1996, many by royal decree, authorities seemed unwilling to free these last two.
Despite recent official statements of commitment to the Internet and to the free flow of information, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) used crude means to keep journalists in check. Like its neighbor Saudi Arabia, the UAE government employs filtering technology to block sexually explicit and politically sensitive Internet content. And while some journalists have noted improvements in their ability to cover international events, reporting on local affairs remains closely scrutinized.
In March, CPJ received credible reports that Abdel Wahid al-Mawlawi, a columnist for the English-language daily Gulf News, had been detained for several days over his satirical writing about local customs and behavior. Mawlawi was reportedly mistreated during his detention. In February, there were also reports that the Ministry of Information had inexplicably barred several prominent writers and columnists from writing for UAE newspapers, the respected daily Al-Khaleej in particular.
In Bahrain, where authorities have shown little patience for independent journalism over the years, Jasim Ali, a business professor and reporter for Business Middle East, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, was detained for about 10 days by security authorities at his home near the capital, Manama. The reasons for Ali’s arrest remain unclear. And according to opposition groups, the columns of some writers, including Hafez al-Sheikh of the daily Akhbar al-Khaleej, were suspended during the year, for unknown reasons.
Jasim Ali, Business Middle East
Bahrain security authorities detained Ali, a business professor and reporter for Business Middle East, a publication of the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, at his home just outside the capital, Manama.
The journalist was released on or about November 11. The motive for his arrest remains unclear, but on October 28, Bahraini authorities raided Ali’s home and confiscated papers and computer diskettes related to his work as a journalist.
Ahmed Zahra, Al-Rai al-Aam
Zahra, a photographer with the Kuwait daily Al-Rai al-Aam, was assaulted by Khaled al-Adweh, a recently elected member of parliament, and a number of his supporters outside al-Adweh’s campaign headquarters in the Al-Ahmedi district, south of Kuwait City.
According to sources at Al-Rai al-Aam, the incident began after Zahra photographed al-Adweh firing a Kalashnikov rifle in the air during a celebration of his electoral victory. Al-Adweh reportedly responded by pointing his firearm at the journalist and then punching him several times. A group of al-Adweh’s supporters joined in the assault, knocking the journalist to the ground and punching and kicking him repeatedly. The men temporarily confiscated Zahra’s camera, which was damaged in the fray, and took the film inside.
Zahra was treated for bruises and injuries to his leg at a local hospital, and then released.
CPJ protested the attack in a January 25 letter to Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Salem al-Sabah, Kuwait’s crown prince and prime minister, calling for an immediate and thorough investigation into the attack.