New York, May 25, 2017-- Authorities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain should cease blocking access to news websites, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Authorities in the allied kingdoms yesterday blocked access to at least eight Qatari-funded news websites, including those of regional broadcaster Al-Jazeera, according to Al-Jazeera, government statements, and news reports.
Regional media published screen shots of error messages saying the websites were blocked by government order.
The censorship came hours after the Qatari state news agency QNA reported remarks purportedly made by Qatar's Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, in which he appeared to criticize U.S. foreign policy, to suggest that U.S. President Donald Trump might not last long in power, to express support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and to advocate for better relations with Iran and Israel. In a series of tweets, chief Qatari government spokesman Sheikh Saif Bin Ahmed Al-Thani swiftly wrote that the news agency had been hacked, that what had been published was "not true and totally baseless," and that authorities were investigating the "despicable act."
The Qatari government also claimed that hackers had written a series of tweets from the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs' account accusing Arab countries of plotting against Qatar and claiming that the country had withdrawn its ambassadors to Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates in response, according to media reports.
Diplomatic relations between Qatar and its fellow members of the Gulf Cooperation Council have long been strained by divergent foreign policies.
"We call on Gulf kingdoms to resolve their political differences without breaking their international treaty obligations to respect the free flow of information," said CPJ's Middle East and North Africa Coordinator Sherif Mansour. "Gulf kingdoms should not hold the public's right to information hostage to a diplomatic spat, and should immediately cease blocking Qatari-funded websites."
Saudi authorities blocked at least eight Qatari-funded news websites, including those of Al-Jazeera's Arabic, English, and documentary channels; the website of the Qatari state news agency QNA; and the websites of the daily newspapers Al-Watan, Al-Raya, Al-Arab, and Al-Sharq, the Saudi-government-funded Al-Arabiya satellite news channel reported yesterday.
The Emirati government-owned daily newspaper Al-Bayan yesterday quoted an Emirati official, speaking anonymously, as saying that the country had blocked access to Al-Jazeera's websites and "all" Qatari newspapers.
Bahraini authorities likewise said they had blocked Al-Jazeera and other unspecified Qatari media outlets for what they called attempts to incite sedition, in violation of agreements between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, according to media reports.
Al-Jazeera yesterday reported on Bahraini security forces' forcible dispersal of a sit-in protest near the home of Shia preacher Eisa Al-Qassem, who is under house arrest pending the conclusion of his trial on corruption charges. At least five people were killed and 286 were arrested on terrorism charges in the operation, according to the Bahraini Ministry of Interior.
Officials from the communications and information ministries of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates did not immediately respond to CPJ's request for comment.
Egyptian authorities also blocked access to 21 websites, including Al-Jazeera and other Qatari-owned media outlets, alleging that they support terrorism, are affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, or report lies, according to news reports.
On May 20 Saudi King Salman Ibn Abdulaziz Al-Saud, U.S. President Trump, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and others met in Riyadh for a summit "to embark on new initiatives to counter violent extremist messaging, disrupt financing of terrorism, and advance defense cooperation," according to a statement released afterward.