Responding to international critics who linked Saudi terrorism to the lack
of basic liberties in the kingdom, the government has loosened its shackles on the domestic press since the September 11, 2001, attacks, with local journalists seizing the initiative to produce more daring reports.
Saudi newspapers now publish news accounts that would have been unthinkable five years ago. Stories on crime, drug trafficking, and the security forces’ battles with armed extremists have become regular fare. Saudi columnists publish probing articles about extremists’ use of religious summer camps to indoctrinate Saudi youth and authorities’ tolerance of extremists in schools. They write essays arguing for the right of women to drive cars.
But progress has been uneven, and enterprising coverage of central political issues such as the actions of the royal family, the influence of the religious establishment, and government corruption remain strictly off-limits. “Criticism goes always to the lower end of the [ladder], especially if the official has power,” noted one Saudi academic who was once banned from writing in the press because of his political criticisms. “And if the official is a prince, it means [that] he never makes mistakes. Have you ever heard or read anything public criticizing the ministry of [the] interior?… The same thing applies to the ministry of defense and ministry of foreign affairs,” he told CPJ.
For a short period after the Riyadh suicide bombings of May 2003, the country’s newspapers were filled with introspective coverage about the roots of terrorism in the kingdom. But the already-narrow margin of freedom to criticize the role of the country’s powerful religious establishment in fostering extremism has shrunk further under pressure from religious conservatives and their allies in the government, journalists said.
In 2005, the government allowed CPJ to conduct its first fact-finding mission to Saudi Arabia. For two weeks in July, CPJ met with journalists, writers, and intellectuals to examine the state of press freedom. While pro-government editors painted a positive portrait of the media, independent-minded writers, including those who have faced reprisals from the government, expressed frustration at the web of official—and unofficial—restrictions faced by journalists.
While noting recent gains for the press, journalists also described an efficient system of government controls that brings unpublicized pressure on editors and reporters to rein in independent journalism. Spearheaded by Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the leading powerbroker for the country’s media, government officials routinely send directives to newspapers to suspend publication of outspoken writers. Editors, who are approved by the government, comply and often unilaterally sanction critical writers and censor news to stay in the government’s good graces. Interior Ministry agents frequently pressure writers through phone calls, issuing admonishments and warnings. They have forced journalists and critics to sign agreements pledging not to write in the press or to criticize the government. Some writers and intellectuals have been banned indefinitely from writing in the press. These include Abdel Mohsen Mussalam, whose poem against corruption in the judiciary briefly landed him in jail when it was published in a local newspaper three years ago; female writer Wajeaha al-Howeidar, who has been outspoken about social problems and the limited rights of women in the kingdom; and Hassan Maliki, a religious critic who has censured Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s official brand of Islam.
While most press controls are administered out of sight, officials occasionally resort to more transparent methods. In January, Mohamed al-Oshen, editor-in-chief of the Riyadh-based Islamist weekly Al-Mohayed, was reportedly detained without charge for several weeks after publishing articles that attacked the Saudi government, including criticism that it had not taken a more active role in advocating the release of Saudi prisoners held by U.S. authorities at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The German news agency Deutsche Presse Agentur reported that al-Oshen, who has two brothers at Guantánamo, is also a member of the legal defense team for Saudi detainees.
Another major source of pressure against journalists is the religious establishment, which broadly consists of clerics and activists. These groups were active in protesting news coverage through phone calls and faxes to newsrooms. They also pressed the government to retaliate against critical journalists. In one case in July, television talk-show host Abdel Rahman al-Hussein, who works for state-run Saudi Television Channel 3, was demoted after his weekly talk show featured a discussion with Saudi teens who criticized the country’s powerful religious police, the mutawaeen. The station’s director told al-Hussein he had received phone calls from unidentified religious conservatives complaining about the program, and that al-Hussein had been dropped by the station because his show was insulting to the mutawaeen. Al-Hussein was reinstated several days later, following the intervention of Information Minister Iyad Madani.
Religious activists also used the courts against critics in the media. In March, then–Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz overturned a Sharia court ruling sentencing Hamzah al-Muzeini, a linguistics professor at King Saud University and an outspoken critic of religious extremism, to four months in prison and 200 lashes. The case was unique in that legal complaints against writers and journalists are handled through the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Information, outside the jurisdiction of religious courts. Al-Muzeini had been taken to court by an Islamist professor who alleged that al-Muzeini had insulted him in an exchange conducted on the opinion pages of two local newspapers. Al-Muzeini had attacked what he called the infiltration of Saudi universities by religious radicals, who had banned music, dance, and the teaching of female students by male professors. During the trial, the judge also accused al-Muzeini of offending Islamic religious scholars in other articles he had written.
Abdullah’s intervention not only quashed the verdict against al-Muzeini but also nullified several other cases pending against writers indicted in religious courts, effectively setting a precedent barring religious courts from being used as a weapon against journalists by religious conservatives.
But the Saudi government doesn’t always side with journalists against the religious establishment. Writers continue to be suspended, dismissed, and harassed by the Interior Ministry in response to calls from religious leaders. In November, the government ordered Saudi editors not to cover the case of Muhammad al-Harbi, a Saudi high school teacher viciously harassed by fellow teachers who objected to his criticisms of religious extremism.
Many reporters contend that a significant degree of responsibility for the media’s failings lies with Saudi editors, who too often cater to the wishes of authorities and who rarely attempt to expand the margins of freedom in the country’s newspapers. “Freedom has been given to us for a long time, but some editors don’t take it,” remarked the deputy editor of one major newspaper. “Some editors are more pro-government than the government itself.”
Critics say that editors have also failed to use the newly established Saudi Journalists Association (SJA), composed of the country’s leading editors, to push for greater freedom. The SJA was licensed by the government in 2003 as the first association of its kind in the country, and it held its first elections in 2004. Although a positive development on paper, it has since been largely inactive, and journalists are skeptical about its role as a positive force for a free press. Few journalists know its precise agenda. Its ineffectiveness has been evident through its silence in the face of job dismissals and the harassment or banning of outspoken writers. The association could play a positive role, for example, by protesting attacks on press freedom when the government takes action against writers. But, to date, it has shown little interest in doing this.
For all the restrictions on local media, Saudi citizens still have access to an array of alternative media sources. The country has one of the highest penetration rates for residential satellite dishes in the region—over 90 percent, according to one study—which means that most citizens can circumvent local media controls and view any of the dozens of satellite news stations that broadcast in the region The government strictly censors the Internet for both morally and politically sensitive material, although Web-savvy users can easily evade the restrictions. Although uncensored debate is absent from the local press, Saudi intellectuals and journalists carry on rich discussions about politics and religion on both the Internet and satellite-TV programs.