Saudi Arabia announces more restrictions on online media

New York, August 13, 2015–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns new restrictions that Saudi authorities said on Tuesday they would be imposing on news websites.

Saud Kateb, the spokesman for the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information, said that the new requirements include having a commercial registration, an office space, and a municipal license, according to news reports. He also said that editors-in-chief should have college degrees and Saudi citizenship, among other conditions.

“With these restrictions, the Saudi government is sending a clear message that it will be almost impossible for online media to operate with any autonomy,” said Sherif Mansour, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator, from Washington. “We are deeply concerned by these measures and call on the Saudi government to stop interfering with the flow of news and information.”

The requirements will be enforced in October, at the beginning of the new year in the Islamic calendar, according to news reports. News websites have been warned that if they do not comply, they will be shut down and/or lose their license, according to news reports.

According to news reports, Kateb said the new measures were in response to complaints about reports that he said infringed on people’s personal rights and “rumors” that led to incitement. Kateb did not name the individuals who filed the complaints.

Last month, a YouTube video circulated on social media and news websites that depicted a girl being sexually harassed by men in the city of Taif. The video incited anger among Saudi citizens. Police later arrested two individuals accused in the case. In June, WikiLeaks published purported documents from the foreign ministry, which alleged the government bought media outlets and influenced other governments to end an investigation into alleged smuggling by Saudi public figures, according to news reports. The Saudi government later warned Saudi citizens against sharing the documents, according to news reports.

In 2011, Saudi Arabia issued new regulations that contained several vaguely worded provisions that could be used to restrict coverage and granted the Ministry of Culture and Information blanket powers without providing protection to online media against abuse.

Separately, Saudi writer Zuhair Kutbi was arrested at his home in the city of Mecca on July 15, according to news reports. Mohamed Jameel, Kutbi’s father, told CPJ that Kutbi was accused of inciting public opinion and offending symbols of the state, among other allegations. Kutbi’s father told CPJ the writer was being held in a prison in Mecca. He has not been officially charged.

Kutbi writes regularly for the news website Makkah Online, and has often criticized the government in Saudi Arabia. He has also published several books on topics ranging from politics, geography, history, and social and philosophical issues.

According to news reports and a regional human rights group that cited Kutbi’s Twitter account, he was detained to prevent him from writing or appearing on any media shows in connection with remarks he made as a guest on a June 22 show, called Fi Al-Sameem (In Depth). The show airs on the privately owned channel Rotana Khaleejia.

In the show, Kutbi criticized the country’s National Dialogue as a waste of time and money and said his own remarks had been edited out of the broadcast of the most recent meeting. Participants of the National Dialogue gather once a year to discuss issues, including reform, extremism, and national unity, in the country.

“The Saudi government is proving Kutbi’s comments about the futility of dialogue by censoring him for his critical views,” said CPJ’s Mansour. “We call on authorities to immediately release Zuhair Kutbi.”

Saudi Arabia is one of the 10 Most Censored Countries, following only North Korea and Eritrea, according to a list compiled by CPJ in 2014.