Saudi authorities maintained a suffocating atmosphere of censorship as they further tightened the country's highly restrictive media law. In April, a royal decree amended five articles of the law, barring the publication of any material that contravened Sharia law, impinged on state interests, promoted foreign interests, harmed public order or national security, or enabled criminal activity. In January, the kingdom issued new regulations for online media that included several restrictive and vaguely worded provisions that grant the Ministry of Culture and Information sweeping powers to censor news outlets and sanction journalists. The government withdrew the accreditation of Riyadh-based Reuters correspondent Ulf Laessing in March, apparently angered by his coverage of a pro-reform protest. Reuters stood by the reporting. The same month, amid popular uprisings across the region, authorities banned three critical columnists working for the government-controlled daily Al-Watan. Authorities did not cite a reason, but all three had written about the region's political unrest. In late year, as demonstrations broke out in the kingdom's eastern province, authorities blocked local and international journalists from gaining access to the region. With a few exceptions, the demonstrations went uncovered.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The original text incorrectly said the royal decree amending the media law in May. It was issued on April 29, 2011. The hyperlink to the royal decree has also been corrected.
CPJ has ranked Saudi Arabia among the 10 Worst Countries to Be a Blogger, based on the country's restrictive laws and the government's practice of blocking hundreds of thousands of websites.
Article 5 of new online regulations issued in January required operators of all news websites to obtain a license. Licenses were subject to several restrictive conditions: Saudi citizenship, a minimum age of 20 years, a high school degree, and “good conduct.” The new regulations subject online media to the kingdom’s highly repressive press law, CPJ research shows.
In July, the Communication and Information Technology Commission said Saudi officials and individuals had requested the government block a total of 672,000 websites in 2010. The commission characterized most as focused on pornography, gambling, and drugs, but CPJ research shows that authorities also blocked numerous human rights and news websites.
Censorship milestones, 2011:
July 25: The kingdom blocked Amnesty International's website after the organization's criticism of an anti-terror bill that could stifle peaceful protest. The site was accessible again in late year.
August 4: Authorities blocked access to the Lebanese news website Al-Akbar for its reporting on Saudi intervention in the Bahrain uprising, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.
August 12: Radio Netherlands reported that its website was blocked after it released a report on migrant worker abuse in the kingdom.
Despite the heavy online censorship exercised by the government, Saudi Arabia has about 11.4 million Internet users, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
Internet penetration in the Gulf region:
UAE: 78 percent
Saudi Arabia: 41
With the May amendments to the media law, first-time violators could face fines of 500,000 Saudi riyals (US$135,000), while second-time offenders could draw a 1 million riyal (US$270,000) fine and a potential ban on working, according to CPJ research. Syria also adopted a media law in 2011 that was portrayed as reform but continued to impose punitive measures for critical reporting.