Prompted by post-9/11 criticism that Saudi Arabia’s closed society had bred violent religious extremism, the government has eased constraints on the country’s heavily censored domestic press, and local journalists have seized the initiative to produce more daring reports on crime, drug trafficking, unemployment, and religious extremism.
But progress has been uneven and limited, and the margin of freedom is one that “is given and taken away,” according to Khaled al-Dakhil, a liberal academic whose columns for the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat of London were banned by the government after he questioned official reform efforts. The Saudi government, often acting under pressure from religious authorities, frequently reins in criticism by banning newspapers, blacklisting writers, ordering news blackouts, and pressuring journalists behind the scenes.
In February, a CPJ delegation headed by Chairman Paul Steiger visited Riyadh to meet with Saudi editors, journalists, and government officials. From those meetings emerged a picture of the opaque and often contradictory forces that regularly inhibit press freedom in the kingdom. CPJ’s Joel Campagna detailed the situation in a special report, “Princes, Clerics, and Censors,” released in May.
Those forces were on display in February, when the government temporarily shuttered the newly launched tabloid daily Shams for reproducing one of the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that first appeared in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten and subsequently caused outrage across the Muslim world. In a meeting with CPJ representatives in Riyadh, Iyad Madani, head of the Ministry of Culture and Information, said that he suspended the paper for two weeks for violating sacred religious strictures. But according to Shams editor Ahmed Fheed, the ministry’s own censors had cleared the issue for distribution, and belatedly moved to halt publication 20 days later, when hard-line clerics and religious figures protested Shams’ liberal approach. The paper was allowed to resume publishing once it agreed to dismiss its 32-year-old editor-in-chief, Batal al-Qaws, in late February.
Other journalists who ran afoul of the country’s strict religious conservatives were similarly targeted. In April, police in the northern city of Hail detained journalist Rabah al-Quwai’ for 13 days in retaliation for his writings about religious extremism. A writer for Shams who also contributed to several Saudi news sites, al-Quwai’ was questioned about articles he wrote on the Web three years ago criticizing the strict religious interpretations of hard-line Wahhabi Islamists. Al-Quwai’ told CPJ that before his release, he was compelled to sign a statement saying that he had denigrated Islamic beliefs in his writing, that he was not a true Muslim, and that he would defend Islamic values in his future work. Had he not signed the statement, al-Quwai’ said, he would have faced a charge of riddah—a renunciation of Islam—which is punishable by death.
Pressures from religious figures took a violent form in February; during a Riyadh book fair, Islamists disrupted a panel on censorship that included leading pro-government editor Turki al-Sudeiri, whose newspaper Al-Riyadh had published critiques of religious extremists. Also on the panel were Muhammad Abdo Yamani, a former information minister, and other writers critical of religious hard-liners. Men in the audience shouted down the panelists, accused them of being un-Islamic, and urged that they be tried in religious courts for their liberal policies. The activists surrounded the panelists and roughed up at least one journalist.
Further underscoring the militant threat, Osama bin Laden purportedly issued a death threat against liberal Gulf writers and intellectuals, including the Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad, in an audiotape released in April.
Over the years, dozens of editors, writers, academics, and other media critics have been suspended, dismissed from their jobs, or banned from appearing in the Saudi press when they offended the government or important religious constituencies. During the year, CPJ received several new reports of journalists who were suspended from writing. In meetings with CPJ in February, Minister of Information and Culture Madani and his deputy, Saleh Namlah, acknowledged the government’s practice of banning writers. Madani confirmed at least one existing ban, on the poet Abdel Mohsen Mosallam, who had lashed out at Saudi religious judges on the pages of Al-Madina newspaper four years earlier. Namlah said that bans are imposed when citizens complain to the king or high-ranking officials, and that such actions are intended to preserve the country’s traditional, conservative society. “My main intent and concern is for journalists not to upset the conservative fabric,” Namlah said. “If children fight with each other, you say go to your room. To the writer, you say please do not write. It’s a way of calming things.” Namlah said he was not aware of any journalist who had been permanently banned.
As often as not, journalists said, the Ministry of Culture and Information, which is commonly viewed as a progressive force in the kingdom, acts at the behest of more powerful political and religious figures. They said the Ministry of the Interior is the leading force in restricting the press, even though the agency’s spokesman, Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, said it had no official role. “It is not the Ministry of [the] Interior who makes a decision to ban a journalist,” he told CPJ in Riyadh. But the ministry is seen as allied with hard-line religious forces and is widely believed to be behind many bans on journalists. Its security forces, known as the mubahith, monitor press coverage and keep tabs on writers in every major city, and frequently compel outspoken writers to sign confidential ta’ahuds, or written pledges, to refrain from certain criticisms or from writing at all.
With the press heavily constrained, Saudis take their frankest discussions to the Internet—though the government censors content there as well. Since the Internet made its debut in the kingdom in 1999, the government has enforced one of the most stringent Web-filtering schemes in the world. It systematically extracts content deemed at odds with the country’s strict religious norms, as well as undesirable political content. A number of political discussion forums and news sites, such as the popular news Web site Elaph, were banned during the year.
While Saudi Arabia’s government and religious establishment shoulder much of the blame for press restrictions, the media themselves are also culpable. Saudi writers are heavily critical of the country’s chief editors, who they describe as government loyalists who have held their jobs for many years, and who have little interest in jeopardizing their privileged positions by challenging authority. Top editors are quick to suspend critical writers and to spike contentious columns. Even government officials criticize the lack of zeal of the mainstream press. “Some editors have been in their jobs for too long, but we cannot do anything about it,” Madani said. “If it were up to me, I would change them tomorrow. I think these papers need young blood.”
The Saudi Journalists Association, which was formed in February 2003 with government approval, is composed of the kingdom’s leading editors but has been almost entirely inactive; in meetings with CPJ, the group’s directors proudly declared that they had not received a single complaint from a Saudi journalist. Asked whether the association would advocate for colleagues banned by the government, association head Turki al-Sudeiri said such matters should be handled by the Ministry of Labor.
Most rank-and-file journalists have little idea of the association’s agenda and are pessimistic it will ever be a force for change. Even Madani was unsparing in criticizing the association’s leaders. “As far as we are concerned, they have done nothing,” he said. “We are waiting for them to move, to register a presence, to do anything!”
The government has loosened restrictions on the foreign press; applications for visas and long-term accreditation for foreign journalists are being granted to international news organizations. Still, some foreign journalists have complained that the authorities use subtle intimidation against reporters’ sources. In February, Saudi authorities apparently pressured the owner of a nightclub in Jeddah after Forbes published a story about the venue, where men and women socially mingle.