CPJ urges Bush to press for release of bloggers

January 10, 2008

President George W. Bush
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Via Facsimile: 202-456-2461


Dear President Bush:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is writing to you in advance of your expected meetings next week with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. We would like to draw your attention to the ongoing imprisonment of two journalist bloggers as well as to other restrictions on the press in each country.

We hope you will use your visits with both leaders to express deep reservations–both in public and in private–about the unjust imprisonment of our colleagues and the ongoing harassment many journalists face.

On December 10, Saudi security agents detained Fouad Ahmed al-Farhan, a young Saudi blogger who runs Alfarhan.org, a popular pro-reform Web site that publishes social and political commentary. Saudi officials have been virtually silent about the detention; a Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman said that al-Farhan was being questioned “about violating non-security regulations.” Throughout his one-month detention, Saudi and other Arab bloggers have rallied on behalf of al-Farhan, deploring his detention without charge and calling for his release.

In an e-mail sent to friends prior to his arrest, al-Farhan explained that he had received a phone call from the Saudi Interior Ministry instructing him to prepare himself “to be picked up in the coming two weeks” for questioning by a high-ranking official. He also stated in the e-mail that he believed he was being summoned “because I wrote about the political prisoners here in Saudi Arabia and they think I’m running an online campaign promoting their issue.” In one of his last posts before his detention, al-Farhan sharply criticized 10 influential Saudi business, religious, and media figures.

Young bloggers like Fouad al-Farhan have taken advantage of the Internet to circumvent tight government control of the Saudi media. The government frequently reins in criticism by dismissing or blacklisting critical writers and by pressuring journalists behind the scenes. In the face of such restrictions, these bloggers have helped expand social and political debate, exercising their right to free speech in a way that is otherwise impossible in their countries.

In Egypt, another reformist online journalist, Abdel Karim Suleiman, remains in jail, serving a four-year jail term for allegedly insulting Islam and President Mubarak. His was the first prison term given to a blogger in Egypt. Suleiman, a former student atCairo’s Al-Azhar University, the preeminent higher learning institution in Sunni Islam, had frequently accused this state-run religious university of promoting extremist ideas. He also criticized President Mubarak, whom he referred to as a dictator. Eventually expelled from Al-Azhar in 2006, Suleiman was arrested in November 2006 and charged for his online writings.

Suleiman’s imprisonment was a prelude to a surge in attacks on independent Egyptian journalists and bloggers over the last year. Several have been criminally prosecuted or convicted in politically motivated trials, among them leading independent editor Ibrahim Eissa, who faces possible prison time for articles he wrote about President Mubarak’s health.

In a speech before a group of international political dissidents in Prague last June, you restated your administration’s policy to support democracy worldwide by saying, “My message to all those who suffer under tyranny is this: We will never excuse your oppressors. We will always stand for your freedom.” You added that the U.S. is using its influence to press close allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia “to move toward freedom,” and that it “will continue to press nations like these to open up their political systems, and give greater voice to their people.”

“Inevitably, this creates tension,” you stated. “But our relationships with these countries are broad enough and deep enough to bear it.”

It is in this spirit that we encourage you to urge King bdullah and President Mubarak to do everything in their powers to ensure that our colleagues are released and that other journalists are able to work freely, without the threat of intimidation and harassment. Such a forceful stand would both help support a free press and also bolster your administration’s policy of holding its allies to account when they violate the fundamental right to freedom of expression. 

Thank you for your attention to these important matters.

Joel Simon

Executive Director