Attacks on the Press 2003: Saudi Arabia

Since the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, , ATTACKS ON THE UNITED STATES, Saudi Arabia’s rigid press has exhibited spurts of uncharacteristic independence, reporting on once taboo topics such as crime, unemployment, and even the problem of religious militancy in the kingdom. However, these welcome displays of openness in one of the region’s most restricted press corps have been greeted with disapproval by Saudi officials, who have sought to rein in the press.

This dynamic was on display again in 2003. This time the main catalyst for revitalized press coverage was the shocking May 12 suicide bombings that struck the capital, Riyadh, killing more than two dozen people. Some Saudi newspapers actively covered the government’s subsequent crackdown on suspected Islamist militants. Several journalists responded with editorials that criticized Saudi society and discussed the problem of religious extremism, corruption, and the absence of basic liberties. Journalists who raised these difficult issues found themselves caught between the government and religious militants, both of which sought to silence them.

One such case involved Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the daily Al-Watan. Government officials removed Khashoggi from his post in May in response to his paper’s increasingly provocative editorial stance against religious militancy in the country. Some columns and cartoons in the paper appeared to ascribe blame for the May attacks to the religious establishment and religious fanatics who breed intolerance. Prior to Khashoggi’s dismissal, religious conservatives had complained to Saudi officials about the newspaper’s coverage, and one cleric urged readers to boycott Al-Watan.

In July, the Information Ministry banned writer Hussein Shobokshi from publishing his weekly newspaper column in the daily Okaz. Although it was unclear what triggered the ban, Shobokshi had written a critical column on July 1 in which he imagined waking up one day in a country where the government showed accountability to the public, citizens could vote in elections, and women could drive. Shobokshi said the column triggered a huge public response, including death threats against him.

In late August, the Information Ministry barred newspapers from carrying the work of Wajeha al-Huwaider, who wrote for Al-Watan and the English-language daily Arab News. The ban came in response to an al-Huwaider column from late May that discussed some Saudis’ disillusionment with their country and the tendency to look to the United States for solutions to problems.

Throughout 2003, CPJ received unconfirmed reports of several other writers who were banned from the press, along with cases of Saudi religious clerics who issued edicts calling for the death of dissidents and reformists who expressed unorthodox views in the media.

Reprisals were not limited to dismissals or verbal threats. In December, Saudi journalist Mansour Nogaidan, of the daily Al-Riaydh, described in The New York Times how he had been ordered by a religious court to receive 75 lashes for articles “calling for freedom of speech and criticizing Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s official religious doctrine.” According to Nogaidan, he refused to report to the police to accept his punishment.

These repressive measures highlighted just how difficult a place Saudi Arabia is for independent-minded journalists to work. Although newspapers in the kingdom are privately owned, the government wields tremendous influence. The Information Ministry approves the hiring of editors and can dismiss them at will. Newspapers receive generous state subsidies, and government guidelines on how to cover political news are still the norm. Despite the more provocative coverage in recent months, papers are still relatively tame. Editors avoid criticizing the ruling family and official policies, as well as reporting on anything that might be interpreted as critical of Islam.

In a positive development in February, the government approved the creation of a journalists’ association aimed at representing the interests of media professionals. Journalists welcomed the move but expressed doubts that the group would become an assertive advocate for greater press freedoms.

Despite government attempts to control what Saudis read or watch, citizens have proved skillful at finding independent sources of news. The country has one of the highest penetration rates for satellite television, and many Saudis have access to a wide range of international programming, including Arabic-language news stations. Activists and other citizens can criticize the government by calling in to talk shows on Arab satellite channels. Some exchange views and advocate for political reforms on the Internet, which made its official debut in the kingdom in 1999. Domestic Internet service is heavily restricted, with the government using a filtering system that blocks morally and politically objectionable material. Thousands of sites are banned. Enforcement of Web censorship is erratic, however, and can be circumvented by savvy Web users. Some Saudis also bypass state controls by dialing into service providers outside the country.

Using Internet sites, chat rooms, cell phones, and text messaging to relay breaking news across the kingdom is becoming increasingly popular. The London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA) has an Internet site that it uses to keep its followers abreast of political developments. In 2002, the group launched a radio station, Al-Islah, which is broadcast from London and can be heard by satellite. Al-Islah and the group’s Web site were used to organize public demonstrations that occurred across the country in October. According to MIRA, the Saudi government jammed its radio broadcasts during the demonstrations. MIRA also established a satellite television station but reported that it lost service for undetermined reasons.

Foreign media continue to face numerous barriers in Saudi Arabia. The government censors foreign publications before they enter the country, blacking out articles deemed morally or politically objectionable and barring distribution of publications. Foreign journalists able to obtain visas have reported that they could move freely around the country, though they suspected that the government may have monitored their movements and phone calls.

Those who report unfavorably about the country may be barred from it. For instance, the government refused to allow the Qatar-based Arabic language satellite station Al-Jazeera to cover the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj. An Al-Jazeera crew was also barred for no specific reason from covering a February meeting of defense and foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council.