Attacks on the Press 2001: Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is one of the most closed societies in the world. The ruling al-Saud family tolerates no political dissent of any kind, especially in the press. Newspapers are deferential toward the ruling family and government policies. Although papers now report more openly on topics such as crime and unemployment, there is no open criticism of the government.

Since the Ministry of Information appoints newspaper editors, the government can exert pressure or dismiss them at will if they publish any objectionable material. Writers are also subject to the same pressures. During the year, CPJ received credible reports that the Ministry of Interior barred several columnists from writing for the daily Al-Watan and other Saudi publications because the ministry objected to their views on religion and other social issues.

The Saudi-owned daily Arab News reported that in July the Council of Ministers, a government body over which the king presides, approved a new press law that for the first time allows journalists to form a professional union. There seemed to be little hope, however, that such an organization would actually increase press freedom.

Saudi authorities exert tight control over all outside sources of information. Foreign publications are closely monitored and censored if they contain any news that offends Islam or casts the kingdom in a negative light.

Foreign journalists continued to have trouble entering the country. When they were allowed access, it was difficult to conduct serious investigations. In October, several foreign correspondents were reportedly barred from conducting interviews in the Abha region, where four of the hijackers involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States were thought to hail from.

The Internet has been available to the public since 1999. Although several private Internet Service Providers (ISP) and Internet cafés operate in the kingdom, a government proxy server filters out objectionable moral and political content. But savvy Web surfers can easily elude the crude controls. According to press reports, many Internet cafés boast in-house hackers who, for a fee, connect users to banned sites. Alternatively, those who can afford it evade the censors by making an international phone call to an ISP outside the country. During the year, there was talk that the authorities were preparing a new law to govern Internet use and specify punishments for such “illegal” online activities.

Satellite television is a more common source of alternative news for many Saudis. Though legally banned in Saudi Arabia, satellite dishes are widely available.