Civil law does not protect human rights, including freedom of the speech and of the press; only local interpretation and the practice of sharia law protect these rights, and there were frequent reports of restrictions of free speech. The Basic Law specifies that “mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation, and strengthen unity. The media is prohibited from committing acts that lead to disorder and division, affect the security of the state or its public relations, or undermine human dignity and rights.” Authorities are responsible for regulating and determining which speech or expression undermines internal security.
The Press and Publications Law states that violators can be fined up to 500,000 riyals ($133,300) for each violation of the law, which is doubled if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. Formally, the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Culture and Information has responsibility for the law; however, sharia court judges, who consider these issues regularly, exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law, which made it unclear which expression accords with the law.
Government-friendly ownership of print or broadcast media led to self-censorship, and there was relatively little need for overt government action to restrict freedom of expression. The government, however, could not rely on self-censoring in social media and the internet. Accordingly, to control information, it monitored and blocked certain internet sites. On a number of occasions, government officials and senior clerics publicly warned against inaccurate reports on the internet and reminded the public that criticism of the government and its officials should be done through available private channels. The government charged those using the internet to express dissent with subversion, blasphemy, and apostasy.
Freedom of Speech: The government monitored public expressions of opinion and took advantage of legal controls to impede the free expression of opinion and restrict those verging on the political sphere. The government prohibits public employees from directly or indirectly engaging in dialogue with local or foreign media or participating in any meetings intended to oppose state policies. The law forbids apostasy and blasphemy, which legally can carry the death penalty, although there have not been any modern instances of death sentences for these crimes. Statements construed by authorities to constitute defamation of the king, monarchy, governing system, or the al-Saud family have resulted in criminal charges for several Saudis advocating government reform.
The government charged a number of individuals with crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. On October 2, human rights lawyer and activist Waleed Abu al-Khair was taken into custody in Jeddah after holding an “unauthorized gathering” to discuss political affairs. On December 14, a judge sentenced Umar al-Sa’id, a member of ACPRA, to 300 lashes and four years in prison for calling for a constitutional monarchy and criticizing the country’s human rights record. Authorities released him on bail on October 3.
On October 6, court authorities charged Abu al-Khair with seeking to overthrow the head of state, tarnishing the reputation of the judiciary, inciting international organizations against the kingdom, forming an unlicensed human rights society, participating in the activities of an organization unlicensed in Saudi Arabia, and attempting to set public opinion against the king. According to Abu al-Khair’s wife, authorities targeted him due to his relations with political reformists. The BIP sought a sentence of five years imprisonment and the closing of his online social media accounts. In June 2012 a Jeddah court charged Abu al-Khair with “tarnishing” the image of the kingdom and contempt of the judiciary, and he was held in detention for three months. In September 2011 authorities charged Abu al-Khair, who also supervised the Facebook group Saudi Human Rights Monitor, with criticizing the government. He has been subjected to an indefinite travel ban since 2011.
On June 5, authorities released author and commentator Turki al-Hamad into the custody of his family after six months of detention without charge. Authorities detained al-Hamad in December 2012 after he published Twitter comments critical of Islamists and political Islam. The Riyadh-based NGO Global Commission for Introducing the Messenger claimed it originally requested that the interior minister detain al-Hamad for his controversial comments.
On July 29, a court sentenced Ra’if Badawi to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for violating Islamic values, breaking sharia law, blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols using a website. The presiding judge also ordered the internet forum closed, although it had been inactive since June 2012. A human rights activist and the founder of the online social forum Saudi Liberals Network, Badawi was detained in June 2012 after his father charged him with “disobedience” in connection with the online forum. At year’s end Badawi remained in custody; an appeal of his sentence continued.
On October 29, authorities released blogger Hamza Kashgari to the custody of his family. In February 2012 authorities arrested him in Malaysia and returned him to the country on charges of blasphemy after he published a poem on Twitter deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.
Press Freedoms: The Press and Publications Law, which extends explicitly to internet communications, governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; and foreign media offices and their correspondents. In 2011 a royal decree amended the law to strengthen penalties and created a special commission to judge violations. The decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia; inciting disruption; serving foreign interests that contradict national interests; and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.” The Ministry of Culture and Information may permanently close “whenever necessary” any means of communication – defined as any means of expressing any viewpoint that is meant for circulation – that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity as set forth in the 2011 royal decree. Print and broadcast media, already self-censored, did not appear demonstrably affected by these restrictions.
The government owned most print and broadcast media and book publication facilities in the country, and members of the royal family owned or influenced privately owned and nominally independent operations, including various media outlets and widely circulated pan-Arab newspapers such as Ash-Sharq al-Awsat and al-Hayat. The government owned, operated, and censored most domestic television and radio outlets.
Satellite dish usage was widespread. Although satellite dishes are technically illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on satellite dishes. Access to foreign sources of information, including the internet, was common. Privately owned satellite television networks headquartered outside the country maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship. Many foreign satellite stations broadcast a wide range of programs into the country, in English and Arabic, including foreign news channels such as CNN, Fox, BBC, Sky, and al-Jazeera. Foreign media are subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Culture and Information and cannot operate freely.
The Ministry of Culture and Information must approve the appointment of all senior editors and has authority to remove them. The government provides guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. A 1982 media policy statement urges journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. The Saudi Press Agency reports official government news.
All newspapers in the country must be government-licensed. Media outlets legally can be banned or have their publication temporarily halted if the government concludes they violated the Press and Publications Law.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines and directly or indirectly censored the media by licensing domestic media and by controlling importation of foreign printed material. Authorities prevented or delayed the distribution of foreign print media, effectively censoring these publications. In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions.
In September Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, as owner of the Rotana Group, a pan-Arab media conglomerate based in Riyadh, dismissed Kuwaiti national Tariq al-Suwaidan as director of the Islamic television channel al-Risala (The Message) because of the latter’s public support for the Muslim Brotherhood and former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi.
In 2011 authorities dismissed Fahad al-Aqran, the editor in chief of al-Madina, and Abdulaziz al-Sowaid, a columnist for al-Madina, and referred them to the Ministry of Culture and Information’s review board after the columnist wrote an article with controversial interpretations of theological issues. They resumed their positions during the year.
The Consultative Council (Majlis as-Shura), an advisory body, frequently allowed print and broadcast media to observe its proceedings and meetings, but the council closed some high profile or controversial sessions to the media. For example, in May 2012 media reported that the council sat in closed session with the minister of labor to discuss introduction of a minimum wage and other labor issues.
There were government restrictions on access to the internet and credible reports the government monitored e-mails and internet chat rooms. Activists complained of monitoring or attempted monitoring of their communications on web-based communications applications. Internet access was widely available to and used by citizens of the country. The Press and Publications Law implicitly covers the electronic media, since it extends to any means of expression of a viewpoint meant for circulation, ranging from words to cartoons, photographs, and sounds. In 2011 the government issued “Implementing Regulations of Electronic Publishing,” setting rules for internet-based and other electronic media, including chat rooms, personal blogs, and text messages. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity.
The Press and Publications Law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including pages calling for political, social, or economic reforms or human rights. In addition to blocking the websites of local and international human rights NGOs in the country, during the year authorities also blocked access to the websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents such as Ali al-Demainy and the website for the October 26 Women’s Driving Campaign. Security regulations require internet cafe owners to install cameras and maintain records on their users.
On June 24, the Specialized Criminal Court found seven Shia men from al-Hasa in the Eastern Province guilty of charges that included “joining the so-called ‘Movement of March 4th in al-Hasa’ and the ‘al-Hasa Freedom Movement,’” both of which maintained active Facebook pages. Authorities also charged two of the defendants with supporting and disseminating the views of London-based antiregime activist Sa’ad al-Faqih, a Saudi dissident who fled the kingdom in 1994. The court found the men guilty of violating the Anti-Cyber Crimes Law, which criminalizes the “production, preparation, transmission, or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.” The men received prison sentences ranging from five to 10 years, as well as subsequent bans on their travel abroad.
The Ministry of Culture and Information or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The CITC dealt with requests to block adult content and coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by service providers to block banned sites can result in a fine of five million riyals ($1.33 million). All other requests to block sites were submitted to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for a decision to block a site or not. In addition to designating unacceptable sites, the CITC accepted requests from citizens to block or unblock sites. According to the CITC, authorities received an average of 200 requests daily to block and unblock sites. According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders, authorities claimed to have blocked cumulatively approximately 400,000 websites. CITC claimed Facebook removed materials the CITC deemed offensive, but Twitter ignored all CITC requests.
On June 5, the CITC announced its decision to block Viber, a proprietary cross-platform, voice-over-internet protocol application developed primarily for use on smart phones, for its failure to meet domestic “regulatory requirements.” The announcement also warned that the CITC would “take appropriate action” against other applications or services, including Skype and WhatsApp, if the proprietary services did not allow the government “lawful access” for monitoring purposes. As of year’s end, while the CITC refrained from action against Skype and WhatsApp, Viber remained inaccessible in the country without the use of a virtual private network.
Access to the internet was legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. Although the authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users could work around the blocked sites and continue to access the internet via other proxy servers.
Laws criminalize defamation on the internet, hacking, unauthorized access to government websites, and stealing information related to national security, as well as the creation or dissemination of a website for a terrorist organization. The government reportedly collected personally identifiable information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government censored public artistic expression, prohibited cinemas, and restricted public musical or theatrical performances apart from those considered folkloric and special events approved by the government. Academics reportedly practiced self-censorship, and authorities prohibited professors and administrators at public universities from hosting meetings at their universities with foreign academics or diplomats without prior government permission.
In August authorities in the Eastern Province canceled a dinner forum in Jubail hosted by local activists calling for the peaceful coexistence of the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. Authorities gave no reason for the cancellation.
In some cases academics retained personal freedom of expression. During the year authorities did not terminate Mohammed al-Qahtani, a professor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Diplomatic Institute, despite his high-profile trial and subsequent conviction for founding an unlicensed organization. Al-Qahtani did not lose his pension despite the controversial nature of his case, and his official status at the institute did not change.