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Online law curbs Saudi freedom of expression
Online law curbs Saudi freedom of expression
By Abeer Allam
Published: April 6 2011
Critics say the regulations threaten the role that the internet plays for Saudi women
Across the Arab world, electronic media such as Twitter and Facebook have played pivotal roles in catalysing the popular uprisings that have toppled two long-serving rulers and continue to threaten others.
In Saudi Arabia, however, online activists fear a new electronic publication law is curtailing nascent freedom of expression.
The law, which came into effect in February, requires online newspapers to obtain a licence from the information ministry. It also expands state control so that online news and commentary websites can be fined or blocked if they are deemed offensive, compromising the nation’s economy or security, or violating Islamic sharia.
While blogs, online forums and chat rooms are excluded from the licensing requirement, the vaguely worded law makes all electronic content, including mobile phone text and video messaging, subject to regulation, critics complain.
“The law axes the tight margin of freedom of expression we enjoy instead of promoting it,” says Hassan Almustafa, a Saudi writer and blogger. “Frustrated Saudi youth will wonder why they don’t enjoy the same online freedom that their peers in neighbouring countries have.”
In response to criticism, Abdelaziz Khojah, the information minister, has amended the law several times. He has, for example, dropped a requirement that editors of online newspapers obtain state approval. And the law has been praised by some journalists and public figures, who say they previously had no protection from online libel and defamatory rumours.
The regulations do though highlight the challenge facing Arab governments as they try to control cyber dissidents. From Bahrain to Tunisia and Egypt, the rising power of ordinary citizens to urge reform and question corruption has left many governments reeling.
While online activism has not generated a tangible political challenge to the ruling Saud family in Saudi Arabia, and a “day of rage” called for on Facebook by unknown activists did not materialise, campaigners have discovered a new power through social websites. They publish articles banned from local media, and openly criticise officials and policies.
“The information ministry is facing a dilemma and is under a lot of pressure because it is asked to control the media and is held accountable for any criticism of anyone, even online,” says Saud Kateb, a media professor who advised on the law in its early stages. “But it needs to act wisely to regulate publishing, not to censor. Some people with little education and louder voices are pushing for imposing more restrictions.”
Under King Abdullah, newspapers have gained more freedom to discuss previously taboo issues such as questioning clerics, debating women’s rights and reporting on abuses by the religious police.
When in 2009 floods killed dozens of people in Jeddah, according to civil defence officials, state media were slow to respond. Then, when the scenes of death and destruction were posted on YouTube and in blogs, the king gave an angry speech in which he vowed to punish those responsible.
But a royal decree last month that banned the “defaming” of clerics has stoked concerns among reformists and liberals.
“The decision does not ban criticising the clerics. It bans unprofessional personal attacks against religious scholars,” says an expert close to the government.
Critics, however, complain that the vaguely worded regulations can be exploited by public figures not accustomed to criticism.
Fouad Al-Farhan, a 35-year-old entrepreneur and blogger from Jeddah who was arrested in 2007 and held without charge for four months, says tolerance of dissenting opinion is low, not only among government officials but also among those who consider themselves “the moral and intellectual guardians of society”.
“They all want to be ‘big brother’,” he says. “They do not consider ordinary people mature enough to have an opinion.”
For Saudi women, the internet plays a different role that is potentially threatened by the new law, say critics. In the absence of entertainment such as cinemas and clubs, and with a ban on the mixing of genders, women, especially, live through the internet.
Hala al-Dosari a US-educated activist, says blogs and social media help raise awareness among women and train them to debate their views, all from the safety of their homes.
“As a woman in Saudi Arabia, I live in a cage, I spend the entire day online because the outside space is very restrictive,” Ms Dosari says. “The law is meant to intimidate us but, in the absence of any political participation or representation, the internet is the only peaceful means to voice our opinion in our own affairs.’’