Attacks on the Press 2002: Saudi Arabia

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the most politically closed societies in the world. The country’s ruling al-Saud family tolerates no internal dissent, prohibits political parties and democratic elections, and closely supervises the media.

Although privately owned, Saudi newspapers are largely toothless. The government approves the hiring of editors and can dismiss them at will. Newspapers receive generous state subsidies as well as guidelines from the Information Ministry about how to cover certain political news. Saudi editors avoid criticizing the ruling family and official policies, as well as reporting on any material that might be interpreted as morally objectionable. Criticism of Islam is off-limits.

However, since 2001, some Saudi newspapers have been tackling previously taboo topics, such as crime and unemployment, and have even criticized the government for its lack of accountability. In March 2002, the dailies Al-Watan and Al-Madinaýtook on the country’s influential religious police, lambasting them for allegedly hindering the rescue of Saudi schoolgirls during a fire because the students were not wearing the proper headscarves and clothing. (More than 15 died in the blaze.) The papers also challenged extremism in the kingdom and called for religious reform.

The government has shown little patience for this new display of daring, dismissing several editors in retaliation for their coverage. In March, the Information Ministry forced Muhammad Mukhtar al-Fal, Al-Madina‘s editor, to resign after he published a poem accusing the country’s conservative judiciary of corruption. The poet, Abdel Mohsen Mosallam, was detained and questioned for several days. Al-Watan‘s editor-in-chief, Qanan al-Ghamdi, was fired from his post in May because officials felt that the paper’s tone had become too liberal. And in July, the Information Ministry forced the director of Al-Madina‘s publishing house, Ahmed Muhammad Mahmud, to resign, most likely because he allowed al-Fal to pen a column for the paper and wrote a critical article about the authorities’ demolition of a poor neighborhood in the city of Jeddah.

In the past, authorities have pressured journalists and other critics by withdrawing their passports or barring them from traveling abroad. The London-based daily Al Quds al-Arabi reported in June that the Saudi government barred opposition figure Mohsen al-Awaji from traveling to Qatar to appear on the satellite television station Al-Jazeera’s talk show “Without Borders.” The show was slated to discuss U.S. government pressure on Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Foreign media continue to face a variety of barriers in Saudi Arabia. The government censors foreign publications before they enter the country, barring distribution of issues and excising articles that reflect negatively on the regime or that contain objectionable moral or political content. In early 2002, authorities reimposed censorship on the London-based Al-Hayat daily, from which the paper had been previously exempted by presidential decree, after it published an article criticizing the Information Ministry. In October, censors banned an edition of the daily that contained an open letter from U.S. intellectuals urging their Saudi counterparts to denounce Islamist extremism.

Following September 11, 2001, the Saudi government relaxed its formerly stringent policy on issuing visas to foreign journalists and allowed several to report from the country. However, some correspondents complained that their telephone conversations were monitored, that government agents intimidated sources, and that officials threatened to withdraw visas because of investigative reports. In April 2002, authorities confiscated videotapes and a laptop computer from Bob Arnot, a reporter with the U.S.-based cable channel MSNBC, while he was boarding a plane to leave the country. The journalist had conducted interviews with Saudi youths who had expressed anti-U.S. views. His tapes and the laptop were returned about a month later.

Saudi Arabia began allowing public access to the Internet in 1999, but officials heavily restrict content. The government has invested millions of dollars in a filtering system that blocks morally and politically objectionable material. Banned political sites include those of Amnesty International and Saudi opposition and human rights groups. Some Saudis are able to bypass state controls by dialing into service providers outside the country.

Saudi Arabia has one of the highest penetration rates for home satellite dish usage in the region, and much of the population can readily access Pan-Arab and international satellite stations. Cell phones, as well as text messaging, are omnipresent and alýow citizens to distribute and share news and information. Saudi citizens frequently call talk shows on satellite channels such as Al-Jazeera to participate in debates about Saudi Arabia. This has infuriated the government, which recalled its ambassador to Qatar in late September to protest programs on Al-Jazeera that criticized Crown Prince Abdullah’s Middle East peace plan and accused the government of not supporting Palestinians.

March 16

Abdel Mohsen Mosallam, Al-Madina

Muhammad Mukhtar al-Fal, Al-Madina

Mosallam, a Saudi poet and journalist, was detained for six days after the daily
Al-Madina published a poem of his that strongly criticized the Saudi judiciary. At year’s end, it remained unclear whether Mosallam had been charged with any offense. According to press reports, two days later, Saudi authorities ordered the dismissal of Al-Madina‘s editor, al-Fal, apparently because of Mosallam’s poem.

April 21

Bob Arnot, MSNBC

Arnot, a reporter with U.S. cable channel MSNBC, was escorted off a flight to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, by security officials at Riyadh Airport. The officials demanded video footage that Arnot had gathered during his trip to Saudi Arabia, which the journalist took with Saudi government permission. After Arnot refused to surrender his footage, the officials confiscated 18 videotapes and a laptop computer from him. Arnot and the other passengers were delayed for five hours before being allowed to board the plane and continue the flight.

Saudi authorities gave no reason for the confiscation. However, the journalist had worked on several sensitive stories, including one in which Saudi schoolboys expressed anti-American sentiments. Officials at the school had asked Arnot to hand over the tapes after those interviews, but the journalist refused. Government officials returned the tapes and the computer a month later.