Civil law does not protect human rights, including freedoms of speech and of the press; only local interpretation and the practice of sharia protect these rights. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech. The Basic Law specifies “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.
On February 1, the Law for Crimes of Terrorism and Terrorist-Financing (CT law) went into effect following its approval by the Council of Ministers in December 2013. For the first time, the law officially defines and criminalizes terrorism and terrorist financing in the criminal code; however, the legal definition of terrorism is extremely broad, defining a terrorist crime (in part) as “any act…intended to disturb the public order of the state…or insult the reputation of the state or its position.”
Saudi human rights activists and international human rights organizations criticized the law for its vague definition of terrorism and complained that the government could use it to prosecute peaceful dissidents for “insulting the state.” The new CT law allows the Ministry of Interior to access a terrorism suspect’s banking information and private communications in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by criminal procedure law.
On February 3, a subsequent royal decree set prison sentences for broadly defined terrorist crimes for the first time in the criminal code.
The Press and Publications Law states violators can be fined up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000) 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 recent instances of death sentences for these crimes. Statements authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, monarchy, governing system, or the al-Saud family 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 July 6, the SCC sentenced lawyer and human rights activist Waleed Abu Al-Khair to a 15-year prison term, a subsequent 15-year international travel ban, and a 200,000 riyal ($53,300) fine for activities related to his human rights work. These activities included public calls for reform, criticisms of government policies and officials, and his role in founding an unlicensed NGO, the Monitor for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia. In January the Jeddah Criminal Court sentenced Abu al-Khair to a three-month prison term on a nearly identical list of charges; however, in late January the Ministry of Interior remanded the case to the SCC to be retried. Following the July judgment, Abu al-Khair announced he would not appeal his judgment since he refused to recognize the legitimacy of the SCC, a tribunal ostensibly created to deal with terrorism cases, to handle his case, and he did not want to lend legitimacy to the SCC or its proceedings. The government has prosecuted and intermittently detained al-Khair since 2011 for criticizing the government. Additionally, the government banned him from travel starting in 2011.
In December 2013 the Buraydah Criminal Court 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; however, authorities subsequently reversed his sentence and ordered that he be retried before the SCC. As of year’s end, al-Sa’id remained at Buraydah prison in al-Qassim Province.
In October authorities referred the case of Abdulaziz al-Shobaily to the SCC for prosecution. Al-Shobaily was active on Twitter and published comments critical of the government. He was also a member of ACPRA.
On September 1, the Jeddah Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier judgment by the court on May 7 sentencing Ra’if Badawi to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes following Badawi’s decision to appeal his July 2013 sentence of a seven-year prison term and 600 lashes. The judgment also banned Badawi from international travel for 10 years after completing his prison term and banned him from corresponding with international media. The Appeals Court ruled that Badawi violated Islamic values, violated sharia, committed blasphemy, and mocked religious symbols on the internet. The presiding judge in the original case ordered the internet forum closed, although it had been inactive since 2012. A human rights activist and the founder of the online social forum Saudi Liberals Network, Badawi was detained by authorities in 2012 after his father charged him with “disobedience” in connection with the online forum. At year’s end Badawi remained in custody in Burayman prison in Jeddah and was still awaiting administration of court-ordered lashes.
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.
Because of their self-censorship, print and media authorities did not frequently prosecute print and broadcast media. 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 were technically illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on satellite dishes. Access to foreign sources of information, including the internet, was common, but the government blocked access to some internet sites it considered objectionable. 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 were subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Culture and Information and could not 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 reported official government news.
In February the Saudi Gazette, a prominent English-language daily print and online newspaper, appointed Somayya Jabarti, a Saudi woman, to the position of editor in chief. Jabarti is the first woman to lead a Saudi newspaper.
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.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists to arrests, imprisonment, and harassment during the year. On March 4, the SCC of Appeals upheld the sentences of two journalists from the Eastern Province, Habib Ali al-Maatiq and Hussein Malik al-Salam, and increased their prison terms to two years and five years, respectively. Authorities originally detained the two journalists in 2012; they had reported on protests in Qatif for the Al-Fajr Cultural Network news websites.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government owned, operated, and censored most domestic television and radio outlets. 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. On January 7, the government banned Ali Al al-Yani, a television anchor, from his talk show on Rotana Khalijia TV, a private channel owned by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Authorities banned Al al-Yani after he interviewed Abdulaziz al-Otaishan, a member of the Consultative Council, the country’s unelected parliament, during which al-Otaishan criticized the government’s decision to send 11.25 billion riyals (approximately three billion dollars) in military aid to Lebanon without seeking approval from the Consultative Council.
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.
Libel Laws/National Security: There were no reports during the year of the government using libel laws to suppress publication of material that criticized policies or public officials.
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 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 for 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.
The Ministry of Culture and Information or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. During the year the government created a General Commission for Audiovisual Media and assigned the new entity responsibility for regulating all audio and video content in the country, including satellite channels, film, music, internet, and mobile applications, independent from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry.
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). Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites 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.
On August 17, the CPVPV confirmed it actively coordinated with the CITC to block pornography and websites that promoted unorthodox or “ill informed” views on religion. According to HRW independent security researchers in June identified surveillance software that appeared to target individuals in Qatif in the Eastern Province, where a large proportion of the kingdom’s Shia religious minority live. The researchers discovered an altered version of an application for mobile phones, which, if installed, would allow the government to access information, including call history, e-mail, and text messaging.
According to the NGO Reporters Without Borders, authorities claimed to have blocked cumulatively approximately 400,000 websites. The CITC claimed Facebook removed materials the CITC deemed offensive, but Twitter ignored all CITC requests. On October 21, Grand Mufti Abdul Aziz Al Shaikh described Twitter as “the repository of scourge and evil and the source of lies and falsehoods.”
In June 2013 authorities banned 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.” As of December Viber was again accessible in the country without the use of a virtual private network despite the official ban. A 2013 announcement had warned 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.
Access to the internet was legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. Although the authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means. In February the CITC blocked access in the country to 41 local news websites for failing to obtain the requisite licensing and permissions from the Ministry of Culture and Information.
On June 6, Rasid, an online newspaper based in Qatif in the Eastern Province, ceased operation. The last message posted on Rasid’s website did not cite a reason for the closure but said the website was never meant to be an opposition website, but rather a news site that honestly reported on facts. Activists claimed Rasid likely closed due to the new CT law. Rasid frequently reported local events, including protests and arrests of members of the Shia community in the Eastern Province.
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. On October 27, a court sentenced lawyer Abdulrahman al-Subaihi to eight years in prison and lawyers Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih to five years in prison for “undermining and slandering the judicial system” via critical tweets and for “disobeying the ruler.” Authorities also imposed international travel bans and restricted their postings on social media.
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 January the Ministry of Interior issued a directive banning hotels, festival halls, and commercial centers from organizing graphic arts or photography exhibits. The ministry directive stated the Ministry of Culture and Information and other security departments must clear the opening of such exhibits.
On July 3, the SCC of Appeals confirmed a lower court sentence against Mekhlef al-Shammary, a Saudi activist from Khobar in the Eastern Province who organized a weekly salon that brought together academics and Shia and Sunni religious figures to discuss reconciliation efforts in the kingdom. In June 2013 the SCC sentenced al-Shammary to a five-year prison term for “stirring up dissent” against the government. Additionally, the court sentenced al-Shammary to a 10-year international travel ban. On November 3, the Khobar Criminal Court sentenced al-Shammary to two years in prison and 200 lashes on a second set of charges that include hosting reformists for private dinners and gatherings at his home. Al-Shammary ceased publishing human rights commentary on his social media accounts following the confirmation of the first sentence.
On October 28, local and regional press reported a court sentenced a Saudi man to two years in prison and 500 lashes for hosting a mixed-gender concert. Authorities sentenced five male attendees to eight months in prison and 99 lashes. Authorities also detained 15 women; it is unclear if authorities punished them.
In December local press reported police arrested a women who dressed in men’s clothing to be able to attend a soccer match (women are banned from soccer stadiums, except for FIFA-sponsored events because FIFA rules mandate entry of men and women).