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Printer-friendly version Princes, Clerics and Censors
Saudi Arabia loosens press shackles,
but religion and politics are still perilous topics
By Joel Campagna
Posted May 9, 2006
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia
Ahmed Faheed, a 33-year-old newspaper editor, wears faded jeans, a wrinkled T-shirt, and an ever-ringing cell phone. But more than his gear is out of place in a downtown cafe in Saudi Arabia’s austere capital city. Tucked under his arm are issues of his tabloid daily Shams, where splashed across the front page is an eye-catching color photo of a young, unveiled woman proudly showing off a tongue ring. The accompanying story warns of the health risks for Saudi youths who get their bodies pierced secretly and without professional supervision.
Since its launch in mid-2005, the paper has pushed the boundaries of social and cultural news coverage in the Arab world’s most religiously conservative society. Owned in part by Prince Turki bin Khaled, Shams has targeted Saudi Arabia’s 18-32 demographic and, despite a modest daily circulation of 40,000, the newspaper has been a hit. “We actually like Shams,” said the country’s information minister, Iyad Madani. “It was the only one that woke up to the notion that we have a young population.”
Shams also woke up the country’s hard-line religious conservatives and, by February, it had apparently gone too far. The government temporarily shut the newspaper after it reproduced one of the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that caused outrage across the Muslim world since first appearing in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. Madani told CPJ that he suspended the paper for two weeks for violating sacred religious strictures.
What happened in the three weeks between the time the paper hit the newsstands and its closure illustrates the backdoor politicking that often dictates what can and cannot be said in the Saudi press. According to Faheed, whose account was verified by other sources, hard-line clerics and religious figures protested Shams‘ liberal approach and urged authorities to take action. A compromise worked out through the Information Ministry allowed the paper to reopen if it dismissed its 32-year-old editor-in-chief, Batal al-Qaws. He was fired in late February.
Following the seismic events of September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States, and May 12, 2003, when suicide bombers struck Riyadh and killed more than two dozen people, the country’s bottled-up media demonstrated periods of boldness and addressed once-taboo topics such as crime, unemployment, women’s rights–and, most significant, religious militancy. Today, Saudi columnists publish probing articles about religious extremists’ use of summer camps to indoctrinate Saudi youth, while commentators argue that women should have the right to drive cars. The government has allowed at least one new daily publication to appear on newsstands, and newly licensed dailies are said to be on the way. Applications for visas and long-term accreditation for foreign journalists, once exercises in futility, are being granted to international news organizations.
But progress has been uneven and limited, and the margin of freedom is one that “is given and taken away,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a liberal academic whose columns for the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat of London were abruptly banned by the government after he questioned official reform efforts. Independent writers point to a web of formal and informal restrictions that prevent them from covering central social and political issues of the day.
• Government officials dismiss editors, suspend or blacklist dissident writers, order news blackouts on controversial topics, and admonish independent columnists over their writings to deter undesirable criticism or to appease religious constituencies.
• The country’s conservative religious establishment acts as a powerful lobbying force against enterprising coverage of social, cultural, and religious matters. The multilayered religious sector includes official clerics, religious scholars, the religious police, radical revivalist preachers, and their followers.
• Compliant government-approved editors squelch controversial news, acquiesce to official pressures to tone down coverage, and silence critical voices.
Independent reporting on politics remains nearly absent from the Saudi press, CPJ’s analysis found. While newspapers occasionally criticize the performance of low-level government ministries or public institutions, critical coverage of the royal family, friendly foreign governments, rampant corruption, regional divisions, and oil revenue allocations remain off-limits. Debate over major foreign policy positions and the concerns of the country’s disenfranchised Shiite minority are also considered banned topics.
The fiercest press freedom battles, however, are being fought over coverage of religious issues. The most enterprising Saudi journalists have sought to challenge what they see as the monopolization of Saudi society by hard-line members of the religious establishment who promote extreme positions. Their coverage remains heavily circumscribed because of enormous pressure brought by religious clerics, preachers, activists, and their allies in the government.
So today Saudis take their frankest discussions about religion and politics to non-Saudi publications or other venues. The candid debates that Saudis have in their homes, in discussion groups known as diwaniyas, in coffee shops, on satellite television, or on the Internet are far better indicators of the nation’s discourse than what is typically found in mainstream newspapers.
In compiling this report, CPJ interviewed more than 80 reporters, writers, editors, and intellectuals in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dhahran, Dammam, and Qatif and met with officials from the information and interior ministries during two fact-finding missions, in July 2005 and in February of this year. Many reform-minded Saudi journalists believe far more can be done to reflect frank discourse and diverse voices in the national media. They argue that press reforms are in the country’s long-term interest–as a way to confront serious domestic issues such as poverty and corruption and as a means to marginalize violent religious extremism.
Although newspapers are privately owned, the state exerts tremendous influence over what is reported. The government approves the appointments of editors-in-chief, a process that journalists say is done behind closed doors with the oversight of Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the powerful interior minister. In practice, though not by law, newspapers require the financial or political backing of a member of the royal family. Unlike in other parts of the region, “opposition journalism” simply doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia. While some columnists have criticized low-level ministers, news coverage is typically devoid of anything reflecting negatively on the royal family, high-ranking officials, and the country’s religious clerics and institutions.
Top editors and most journalists view themselves as defenders of the ruling Al-Saud family, and government officials ensure allegiance by applying behind-the-scenes pressure–issuing directions on sensitive stories, banning coverage of certain topics, and taking punitive actions against journalists. Over the past decade, CPJ research shows, dozens of editors, writers, academics, and other media critics have been suspended, dismissed from their jobs, or banned from appearing in the Saudi press. The actions came by government order, the intervention of religious leaders, or at the initiative of editors. Other journalists have faced detention, questioning by security authorities, and travel bans.
Another watershed came in March 2002, when a fire broke out at a girls’ school in the holy city of Mecca, killing 15 students. When allegations surfaced that the feared religious police, or mutawaeen, had slowed rescue operations because girls inside the burning building were not wearing the requisite black body covering, newspapers made an unprecedented show of defiance. The mutawaeen, who use the formal title of the Committee for Propagating Virtue and Preventing Vice, were said to be “preventing life and propagating death” in the daily Okaz. The leading daily Al-Riyadh commented that the fire reflected prejudicial attitudes toward women. The government eventually removed the cleric in charge of girls’ education and transferred oversight to the Education Ministry.
At about the same time, other writers were testing the limits of what could be published. The poet Abdel Mohsen Mosallam stunned colleagues when he wrote a verse for the daily Al-Madina that accused the country’s cleric-controlled judiciary of corruption. “Your beards are smeared with blood. You indulge a thousand tyrants and only the tyrant do you obey,” the poem read in part. It accused judges of caring “for nothing but their bank accounts and their status with the rulers.”
Critical news coverage rebounded a year later when suicide bombers struck several western installations in Riyadh on May 12, 2003, killing more than two dozen people and pointing to an internal terrorist threat. The incident triggered an unprecedented debate in newspapers about the roots of extremism.
Al-Watan columnist Adel al-Toraifi witnessed the change overnight. A day before the bombings, al-Toraifi’s editor had spiked a prescient column warning of the threat from religious fanatics who operate openly in the kingdom. Headlined “To Prevent a Saudi Manhattan,” it discussed the looming terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia and said that religious sheikhs were inflaming tensions and promoting extreme interpretations of Islam. The article ended up running prominently on Al-Watan‘s opinion page two days after the bombings. “My editor knew it could be published and that I would not be punished for it,” al-Toraifi said.
In the following months, al-Toraifi and other Saudi writers served up daring columns on extremism that obliquely criticized the government for tolerating Islamist fanatics. Newspapers examined how extremists exploited the education system to indoctrinate youths. Commentators scrutinized Wahhabi restrictions on women and what they called hard-liners’ intolerance of other religions’ beliefs.
“It grew to the point where I wrote that the religious establishment continues to be an obstacle to the war on terrorism,” al-Toraifi said.
The boldest commentary appeared in Al-Watan, at the time a relatively new paper partly owned by liberal Saudi Prince Bandar bin Khaled. “Those who committed yesterday’s crime, which will have a painful impact on the peaceful nature of our nation, are not only the suicide terrorists, but also everyone who instigated or justified the attacks … even everyone who kept silent on this direction, which is deviating from our religion and nature,” the newspaper’s newly appointed editor-in-chief, Jamal Khashoggi, wrote the day after the bombings. Al-Watan also published provocative cartoons depicting Saudi clerics condoning terrorist acts. Its most explosive column, appearing just days after the May bombings, traced the violence to 14th–century Muslim cleric Ibn Taymiyya, whose puritanical teachings provide a foundation for the Wahhabi doctrine. The column said extremists had used the teachings to justify violent attacks.
Coverage gradually receded and the press has yet to recover, leaving many liberal writers disillusioned and dubious of the government’s commitment to media reform. Some journalists believe that the government, threatened by al-Qaeda after May 2003, used the press to weaken hard-line religious elements during this period–only to retighten controls once it gained the upper hand against terrorists.
In meetings with CPJ in February, Information Minister Madani and his deputy, Saleh Namlah, acknowledged the government’s practice of banning writers. Madani confirmed at least one existing ban, on the poet Mosallam, but did not provide details. Namlah said bans are imposed when citizens complain to the king or high-ranking officials, and that such actions are intended to preserve the country’s traditional, conservative society.
“My main intent and concern is for journalists not to upset the conservative fabric,” Namlah said. “If children fight with each other, you say go to your room. To the writer you say please do not write. It’s a way of calming things.” Namlah said he was not aware of any journalist who was permanently banned.
It’s been almost three years, though, since Wajeha al-Howeidar has written for a Saudi newspaper. Al-Howeidar, a former teacher who develops education curricula at Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company Saudi Aramco, began writing opinion pieces several years ago, but in 2003 Saudi newspapers abruptly stopped publishing her articles. “I learned while I was on vacation. Friends said, ‘We heard you were banned,'” al-Howeidar recalled during an interview at Aramco’s sprawling complex in Dhahran, in the country’s oil-rich eastern province. Al-Howeider said editors at Al-Watan and Arab News told her they received faxes from the Information Ministry instructing them to stop publishing her work.
“When someone decides this person should stop writing, they don’t inform them,” she said. “I always heard [about the ban] from other people and the Ministry of Information acted as if they didn’t know about it.” The Information Ministry, according to al-Howeidar, approached her last summer and offered to lift the ban if she traveled abroad as a goodwill ambassador and spoke about advances in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She refused. When asked about al-Howeidar’s case, Madani and Namlah said they understood that it was al-Howeidar’s decision to stop writing. Madani said no deal was offered to the writer.
Bans are just one method of control. Authorities also provide guidelines to editors on how to cover sensitive stories, when to impose news blackouts, and what to censor. In November, the government ordered editors not to cover the case of Muhammad al-Harbi, a high school chemistry teacher from Qassim who was viciously harassed by Islamist colleagues who objected to his encouragement of critical religious interpretation. Al-Harbi, targeted with blasphemy charges, was sentenced to 40 months in prison and 750 lashes before being pardoned by King Abdullah. Madani acknowledged halting the coverage to avoid creating “divisions” in Saudi society.
As often as not, journalists said, the Information Ministry acts at the behest of more powerful political and religious figures. They said the Interior Ministry is the leading force in restricting the press, even though the agency’s spokesman, Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, said it had no official role. “It is not the Ministry of Interior who makes a decision to ban a journalist,” he told CPJ in Riyadh. But the ministry is seen as allied with hard-line religious forces and is widely believed to be behind many bans on journalists. Its security forces, known as the mubahith, monitor press coverage and keep tabs on writers in every major city, journalists said. The Interior Ministry has been particularly active over the past three years, with agents persuading a number of journalists to sign confidential ta’ahuds, or written pledges, to refrain from certain criticisms or from writing at all, several journalists told CPJ.
Mansour al-Nogaidan, a 35-year-old former religious extremist-turned-critic who writes for Al-Riyadh, said he was summoned to a five-star hotel in Riyadh for questioning by intelligence agents after he wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times. The November 2003 article stated that the country was “bogged down by deep-rooted Islamic extremism in most schools and mosques, which have become breeding grounds for terrorists,” and that terrorism will persist “as long as it is endemic to our educational and religious institutions.” Agents phoned him within days with the terse message that his writings had “offended the state.” He was detained for five days by the mubahith, and editors at Al-Riyadh wouldn’t publish his columns for several months.
The relationship between the Al-Saud and the country’s clergy is built on trade-offs and political balancing. But over the last three decades, Saudi authorities have ceded increasing influence to the religious establishment as a way to placate hard-line Islamists. Today, the most daring Saudi journalism is not about politics or the royal family but about the growing strength of conservative Wahhabi practices, which commentators say repress women, breed religious intolerance, and encourage terrorism.
CPJ research shows that conservative clerics and Islamist activists have countered such criticism by relentlessly attacking the media in sermons and on the Internet, and by persistently pressuring news managers. When press coverage strays too far, they are aggressive in pressuring editors or enlisting the government to crack down.
“Everybody needs to keep in mind that there is a line between what the constitution and the religious authorities say on one hand, and issues subject to rational debate on the other,” al-Buraik said. “This line should not be crossed.”
“It’s like McCarthyism in the 1950s,” said Khashoggi, the former Al-Watan editor, likening the climate to the anti-communist campaign by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the blacklisting of U.S. writers.
Sultan al-Qahtani, a Riyadh-based editor for the popular, Saudi-owned news Web site Elaph, said Saudi religious clerics have denounced Elaph by name at Friday prayers, and religious conservatives have condemned him in e-mails. “We’re asking for more of an opening in society. We’re asking for women’s rights, a greater margin for freedom of the press. The religious people are trying to go back to centuries past,” he said. “And this angers them very much.”
In December, Saudi Web censors blocked access to Elaph in the kingdom after the site printed (accidentally, according to Qahtani) an e-mailed comment that referred to sexual relations of the Prophet Muhammad. “But this was not the only reason they came after Elaph,” Qahtani said. “Many of the religious men are raising complaints to the king and the Information Ministry about Elaph.”
In some cases, writers have received online death threats, most anonymous and posted on Islamist Web sites.
Muzeini’s writings infuriated extremists so much that in 2005 they initiated an extraordinary legal case against the journalist in an Islamic sharia court, which has no formal jurisdiction over press matters and where severe penalties include flogging. The suit was filed by an Islamist professor named Abdullah Barak, who accused Muzeini of defamation after the two exchanged a series of remarks in Saudi newspapers. The argument started when Muzeini wrote a piece in Al-Watan decrying the presence in Saudi universities of hard-line Islamists who ban music, dance, and the teaching of female students by male professors.
Muzeini was eventually convicted and sentenced to 100 lashes and two months in prison. When he defiantly told the judge that his decision would never stand, the judge promptly doubled the sentence. Sources told CPJ that an incensed Abdullah, who had issued an earlier directive to halt the prosecution, nullified the verdict against Muzeini and quashed several other similar prosecutions.
Abdullah’s intervention was very important, journalists said, but the Saudi government doesn’t typically intercede on behalf of journalists against the religious establishment. While recognizing the government’s need to strike a balance between religious conservatives and liberals, journalists blamed the Interior Ministry and other officials for giving in to the protests of religious leaders too easily.
While Saudi Arabia’s government and religious establishment shoulder much blame for press restrictions, trouble also lies within the profession. “The editors are part of the problem,” said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a former Al-Watan columnist who is now editor of Forbes Arabia in Dubai. “They have established a school of journalism that doesn’t permit criticism.”
Saudi writers paint an unflattering picture of the country’s chief editors as government loyalists who have held their job for many years, and who have little interest in jeopardizing their privileged positions by challenging authority. Top editors are quick to suspend critical writers and to spike contentious columns.
In highlighting the failure of the main dailies to live up to their potential, many journalists draw comparisons to new Saudi media such as Al-Watan, London-based Saudi-owned dailies Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat, and the online news site Elaph. By emphasizing youth and in-depth reporting, each has pushed the boundaries of what is permissible.
Even government officials criticize the lack of zeal of the mainstream press. “Some editors have been in their jobs for too long, but we cannot do anything about it,” said Madani, the information minister. “If it were up to me I would change them tomorrow. I think these papers need young blood.”
In meetings with CPJ, leading editors were deferential to government officials and quick to downplay restrictions. Nearly all painted a positive picture of the country’s media environment, despite some conflicts with the religious establishment. “There have been many changes in the press,” said al-Sudeiri, the Al-Riyadh editor. “Before it used to be difficult to write about religious groups, but now we write about them.”
But al-Sudeiri emphasized that the press must respect the country’s conservative social fabric. He cautioned against “absolute” freedom and said that maintaining national security and unity was the main responsibility of the press. “Journalism in the kingdom touches many aspects that are important to citizens, but we have to handle it in a way that will benefit the best interests of the citizens and institutions,” he said.
Al-Sudeiri heads the Saudi Journalists’ Association, which was formed in February 2003 with government approval. Composed of the kingdom’s leading editors, it has been almost entirely inactive; in meetings with CPJ, the group’s directors proudly declared that they had not received a single complaint from a Saudi journalist. Asked whether the association would advocate for colleagues banned by the government, al-Sudeiri said such matters should be handled by the Labor Ministry.
Most rank-and-file journalists had little idea of the association’s agenda and were pessimistic it would ever be a force for change. Even Madani was unsparing in criticizing the association’s leaders. “As far as we are concerned, they have done nothing,” he said. “We are waiting for them to move, to register a presence, to do anything!”
Beyond editors-in-chief, Saudi journalists said the media suffer from a lack of professionalism and an inability to attract well-trained people who see journalism as a full-time career. Line editors are often expatriates from Egypt, Lebanon, or the Subcontinent who may not grasp the importance of a local story–but can be as ruthless at spiking stories as Saudi editors, say some writers. The absence of professional training and journalism schools, coupled with a culture of self-censorship, has fostered apathy among many young journalists.
As the world’s leading oil producer with 25 percent of known petroleum reserves and as a frontline state in the battle against al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia will remain at the center of international attention for some time. Analysts fear that the country–confronted by unemployment, economic inequities, the threat of terrorism, corruption, and the presence of religious militancy–faces political upheaval unless it allows its citizens a greater say in how the country is governed.
The long road to reform is fraught with challenge. Members of the ruling al-Saud family have different views on the need for change. And religious conservatives, at least in recent decades, have held the upper hand over liberal reformists. Already in 2006, the government has sent mixed signals. Some once-banned columnists reappeared in print, even as the government shut down two Internet news sites and arrested Shams writer Rabah al-Quwai’ for “denigrating Islamic beliefs.”
Reform-minded journalists say change must be quicker, more substantive, and permanent. Real progress, they say, requires empowering the media to serve as a platform for free and open debate on critical issues facing Saudi Arabia. “Our country today faces internal and external challenges that we need to overcome or there will be a new wave of violence,” Saudi writer Muhammad Mahfouz said during a diwaniya in the eastern city of Qatif. “The first door of reform is an open press.”
Recommendations to the Saudi government
CPJ calls on the government of Saudi Arabia to implement the following recommendations aimed at bringing the country’s practices in line with international standards:
• Encourage journalists to carry out independent reporting–including critical news coverage of the royal family, government, and religious establishment–by issuing an explicit guarantee that authorities will not penalize them, directly or indirectly, for such professional activities.
• Cease all official interference in the daily operation of newspapers. Halt the imposition of bans against critical journalists. Stop the intimidation and detention of journalists for their writing.
• Encourage independence and diversity in the local press. End the practice of approving the appointments of editors-in-chief. Ease the process of obtaining newspaper licenses for all citizens, regardless of whether they have backing from the royal family or the government.
• Take immediate steps to privatize broadcast media with the intention of fostering independent news and opinion on Saudi television and radio, including views that are critical of the government and its policies.
• Halt the censoring of news Web sites.
Because of the unique role played by Saudi editors-in-chief, CPJ calls on these top editors to implement the following recommendations:
• Halt disciplinary actions, job dismissals, and other sanctions levied against journalists for critical work.
• Establish a permanent committee that actively reports and publicizes press freedom violations in the Saudi media. Violations should include cases of journalists arrested, dismissed from their jobs, or otherwise prevented from carrying out their professional duties due to their published work.
• Create a mechanism by which journalists can file complaints with the committee, have the association take action on their behalf, and have the association actively defend their interests and rights.
|Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists.|