Attacks on the Press 2004: Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s press is among the most heavily censored in the Arab world, but it has shown occasional signs of life since September 11, 2001. Some Saudi newspapers have demonstrated unusual boldness, publishing tough critiques of religious militancy and low-level government mismanagement and calling for reform.

Previously, papers cleared stories about crime and terrorism with authorities before publication. This practice has become less common in recent years, with journalists seizing the initiative. The press has also been more vocal in its criticism of U.S. policy in the Middle East, and, on occasion, papers have challenged the country’s strict social prohibitions. In January, newspapers ran front-page photos of unveiled Saudi women interacting with men at an economic forum in the city of Jeddah. The country’s highest religious authority condemned the forum, as well as the newspapers.

Despite these pockets of media independence, officials frequently fire editors and pressure them to bar controversial journalists from writing. In 2004, several journalists and political activists were banned or remained blacklisted from the media under government pressure, local journalists told CPJ. They were either prohibited from writing in newspapers or received warnings against speaking to international media.

The government occasionally detains journalists for questioning. Fares bin Hizam, formerly with the daily newspapers Al-Watan and Asharq al-Awsat, was detained without charge on April 21 in the city of Dammam and held for several days. Saudi journalists say he was picked up for his articles about terrorism and extremism in the country. Bin Hizam had already been fired from several Saudi newspapers under pressure from authorities, and in 2004, the Information Ministry issued a directive to Saudi newspapers to no longer publish his work.

The state completely controls Saudi broadcast media, and although newspapers are mostly privately owned, the government approves the hiring of newspaper editors and can remove them at will. The Interior Ministry, headed by the powerful Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud, is believed to exert considerable influence over what is written and who works where. Critical or negative coverage of the ruling family and Islam is strictly off-limits, as is any content that authorities deem morally objectionable.

Under international pressure to reform following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Saudi officials have undertaken a number of largely symbolic steps, some of which involved the media. In 2003, the government allowed TV

stations to air sessions of the country’s quasi-parliamentary body, the Shura Council. Also that year, the government officially licensed a journalists union designed to promote the interests of media professionals. In 2004, the union elected its first

board, which included two women. However, because the Information Ministry

can reject any decision the board makes, the body is unlikely to improve press

freedom significantly.

Saudi Arabia has been a difficult beat for foreign correspondents because authorities issue visas sparingly. In recent years, however, visa restrictions have been eased. But journalists who gain entry to the country face the new threat of extremists who target foreigners, including the press. In early June, BBC cameraman Simon Cumbers was killed in a drive-by shooting near Riyadh, the capital, while filming a house belonging to an al-Qaeda militant killed by Saudi police. BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner was also seriously injured in the attack.

In an attempt to improve the country’s international image and compete with popular regional satellite broadcasters, the government launched an all-news satellite television channel, Al-Akhbariya, in early 2004. The station features women presenters, as well as a flashier format than other state channels. Athough Al-Akhbariya often covers breaking news on crime and terrorism, its reporting is heavily skewed toward the government.

Saudi businessmen with links to the royal family have invested heavily in pan-Arab media over the years, and outlets like the London-based dailies Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat, as well as the popular Dubai-based broadcasters Middle East Broadcasting Centre and Al-Arabiya, have all earned solid reputations for their news coverage. However, they avoid tough criticism of Saudi affairs.

Satellite dishes are technically illegal in Saudi Arabia, yet the country boasts one of the highest dish usage rates in the Arab world. According to a survey from one Arab polling group, more than 90 percent of Saudi homes have access to satellite dishes. Not surprisingly, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya ranked among the most watched news channels.

Al-Jazeera continued to incur the Saudi government’s anger for providing a platform for Saudi dissidents on some of its news programs. A leading Saudi government cleric issued a religious opinion barring Muslims from watching the channel, which he labeled “Zionist” and “evil.” The government also accused Al-Jazeera of “inciting terror” for airing a tape showing suicide bombers before they carried out an attack on a residential compound in Riyadh. For the second year in a row, officials barred Al-Jazeera reporters from covering the annual hajj pilgrimage.

The government, which introduced public Internet service in 1999, heavily polices Web use. An elaborate filtering system weeds out thousands of pornographic, political, and news sites. Still, the Internet has become an important source of information for many Saudis, who access the Web uncensored by dialing out-of-country providers or through satellite feeds, despite a 2003 government ban on them.