Saudi Prince Sultan bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz made an unexpected phone call last week to a live talk show on a Saudi sports channel. The prince made the angry call to Al-Riyadiyya from Mascat, Oman, on January 17 after he'd watched Oman's national soccer team defeat Saudi Arabia in the Gulf Cup. He picked up the phone to interrupt sports commentators who were criticizing both the team and the management of the Saudi Soccer Federation.
"You had better keep silent," warned the prince, who heads the Saudi Youth Welfare. "Because I can no longer tolerate your attitude. If you are not polite enough, then I can educate you myself," he told the TV commentators before abruptly hanging up on them and their host.
The call had a chilling effect on the TV talk show host and his guests. It also prompted outrage and concern among Saudi journalists and bloggers who promptly posted the video of Prince Sultan's intimidating remarks on YouTube.
"Yes, I have seen it and it's outrageous," a Saudi blogger told CPJ on condition of anonymity. "Obviously, the prince can't take criticism very well." The Riyadh-based news site Elaph quoted a Saudi sports journalist as saying he was afraid that Prince Sultan's behavior "could push journalists to censor themselves."
The threat came as a reminder of the intolerance to critical thinking Saudi journalists face every day. Not only princes, but also radical clerics reject criticism and have been spurring fear and self-censorship among Saudi journalists and bloggers. They have enough power and influence to silence or jail journalists and reform advocates.
On December 10, 2007, a young blogger named Fouad Ahmed al-Farhan was arrested in Jeddah and kept in detention without charge for months for simply advocating reform and calling for the release of political prisoners. In March 2008, Sheikh Abdul Rahman al-Barrak, an influential Saudi cleric, issued a religious edict, a fatwa, calling for the prosecution for apostasy of writers guilty of "heretical articles" and their killing if they fail to repent and conform to Saudi Arabia's rigorous version of Sunni Islam, known as Wahhabism.
Later, in September 2008, two top Saudi clerics issued two alarming fatwas. The first one called for the death of owners of satellite TV stations that air "immoral" soap operas. The second fatwa said writers who challenge or criticize religious sheikhs should be fired from their jobs, flogged, and jailed.
"Those [writers] and journalists and satellite TV stations who attack scholars, and particularly well-known sheikhs, and publish bad articles about them--they must be punished . . . even by lengthy imprisonment . . . or by dismissing them from their jobs, and flogging and rebuking," Al-Masry al-Youm, a leading Egyptian independent daily, quoted cleric Sheikh Abdallah Ben Jabreen as saying during the broadcast of one of the fatwas.
In 2006, CPJ urged the Saudi government, following a fact-finding mission, to implement recommendations aimed at bringing the country's media practices in line with international standards. We wrote in January 2008 to King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz to protest the arbitrary detention of al-Farhan and remind him that during the earlier meetings with CPJ representatives in Riyadh, Saudi officials had affirmed the country's commitment to gradual reforms and praised what they called "the recent loosening of restrictions on the local press." The attacks on journalists and bloggers since CPJ's mission are a reminder that the media is still on a tight leash and the price for critical journalism is still heavy.
Threats to fire and jail and kill bloggers, journalists, writers will remain over newsrooms, talk shows, and homes in Saudi Arabia as long as intolerant Saudi princes and radical clerics continue to take the law into their own hands and ban critical thinking.