Wajdi al-Ghazzawi

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Wajdi al-Ghazzawi was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 2014 for his work as a television host, where he accused the Saudi government of widespread corruption and claimed in one episode that Al-Qaeda was a creation of the Saudi government.

The Saudi Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh on February 4, 2014, sentenced al-Ghazzawi, owner of the religious satellite broadcaster Al-Fajr Media Group, to 12 years in prison for "harming the nation’s image," according an article by the pro-government Saudi Gazette and UPI.

The prison sentence included a five-year term under Article 6 of the Anti-Cybercrime Law, which criminalizes the production of material impinging on public order and public morals, among other issues. The court also banned al-Ghazzawi for life from appearing on media outlets and forbade him to leave the country for 20 years.

The court said al-Ghazzawi had incited sedition and hurt the kingdom’s reputation. Beginning in 2011, al-Ghazzawi hosted seven episodes of a show called "Fadfadah," in which he criticized the Saudi government and accused it of widespread corruption. In a few of the episodes, he claimed that the kingdom had adopted a policy of slavery and that Al-Qaeda had been created by Saudi Arabia.

During the trial, al-Ghazzawi said his show was intended to educate Saudi citizens and he repeated his belief that Al-Qaeda was a Saudi creation, according to an article by the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat.

Al-Ghazzawi was also sentenced for receiving money from a hostile foreign power, the Saudi Press Agency reported. According to the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat, al-Ghazzawi was accused of taking approximately US$1.8 million from Libya’s ousted leader, Col. Muammar Qaddafi. Al-Ghazzawi said the money was payment for the channel’s coverage of a Quran recitation contest.

Al-Ghazzawi, who managed Al-Fajr from Cairo, returned to Riyadh in November 2011 to help secure funding for his struggling station, he wrote in an extended statement posted to his Twitter account. In the statement, he accused Saudi officials of luring him back to the country under false pretenses of helping to financially secure his channel when they intended to pressure it to close. He also said he was barred from leaving the country upon his return.

On August 10, 2012, he tweeted that he had been arrested. According to Al-Marsd, a Saudi newspaper, the arrest was related to the channel’s inability to pay its debt. It was not clear when prosecutors turned their attention to the station’s content and funding. (As of September 2020, the link is no longer accessible online at Al Marsd.)

Over the next year, al-Ghazzawi’s account remained active with tweets originating from users claiming to be a friend or employee and tweeting updates about his status in prison. On March 4, 2014, the account tweeted that al-Ghazzawi was in good health and had been transferred to a prison in Mecca.

In September 2015, colleagues operating al-Ghazzawi’s Twitter account said that he was waging a temporary hunger strike to protest conditions in the prison, including inadequate medical care. His Twitter account has not been updated since late 2015.

As of September 2020, al-Ghazzawi was still in Mecca Prison, according to Al-Qst deputy director Josh Cooper, and did not have any new court appearances. Cooper told CPJ that as of the same date al-Ghazzawi did not have any new health issues and was not facing ill treatment in prison.

In October 2020, CPJ emailed the spokesperson and the media office for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. for comment about journalists held in Saudi prisons, including al-Ghazzawi, but received automated messages that the emails were not delivered. The same month, CPJ also sent a request for comment to an email listed on the website of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Royal Court, but received a message saying the address did not exist. CPJ also emailed the Saudi Ministry of Media and sent a message through the website of the Saudi Center for International Communication, but neither request was returned.