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.
In February 2014 the Law for Crimes of Terrorism and Terrorist-Financing (the CT law) went into effect following its approval by the Council of Ministers in 2013. For the first time, the law officially defines and criminalizes terrorism and terrorist financing in the criminal code. The legal definition of terrorism, however, 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 private communications as well as banking information in a manner inconsistent with the legal protections provided by criminal procedure law.
The Press and Publications Law states that violators can face fines 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. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Culture and Information has formal responsibility for the law, sharia court judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which process 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, did not rely on self-censoring in social media and the internet; 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 that authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, the monarchy, the governing system, or the Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform.
The government charged a number of individuals with crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. On January 12, an appeals court upheld the sentencing of 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 2013 the Jeddah Criminal Court sentenced Abu al-Khair to a three-month prison term on a nearly identical list of charges, but the Ministry of Interior remanded the case to the SCC to be retried. The government has prosecuted and intermittently detained Abu al-Khair since 2011 for criticizing the government. The government also banned him from travel starting in 2011.
On November 5, the SCC sentenced Omar al-Sa’id, a member of ACPRA, to two-and-half years in prison and a two-and-a-half-year travel ban. Al-Sa’id was previously sentenced in 2013 by the Buraydah Criminal Court to 300 lashes and four years in prison for calling for a constitutional monarchy and criticizing the country’s human rights record; authorities subsequently reversed his sentence and ordered that he be retried before the SCC.
In October 2014 authorities referred the case of lawyer and human rights activist Abdulaziz al-Shobaily to the SCC for prosecution. Al-Shobaily, a member of ACPRA, was active on Twitter and published comments critical of the government. As of year’s end, his prosecution at the SCC continued.
In September 2014 the Jeddah Court of Appeals affirmed an earlier judgment by the court in May 2014 sentencing human rights activist Ra’if Badawi to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes following Badawi’s decision to appeal his 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 he had founded, Saudi Liberals Network, closed, although it had been inactive since 2012 (see section 1.c.).
Press and Media 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 create 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 a viewpoint that is meant for circulation--that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity, as set forth in the decree.
Because of self-censorship, print and media authorities did not frequently have reason to 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 them. 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. 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 provided guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. A 1982 media policy statement urged journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. The Saudi Press Agency reported official government news.
All newspapers in the country must be government-licensed. The government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the Press and Publications Law.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists to arrests, imprisonment, and harassment during the year.
On July 16, authorities arrested writer Zuhair al-Kutbi after he criticized the king and Saudi leadership on a talk show on Rotana Khalijia TV, a private television channel. On December 21, al-Kutbi was convicted of “inciting public opinion, fomenting sedition, defaming state institutions, and harming the government’s prestige.” He was sentenced to four years in prison, banned from international travel for five years, banned from writing and appearing in the media for 15 years, and fined 100,000 riyals ($27,000). Authorities also banned talk show host Abdullah al-Mudaifar, who interviewed al-Kutbi, and his other guest, religious scholar Mohsen al-Awaji, and ordered an investigation into comments made on the show critical of King Abdullah’s policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood.
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. 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.
The government censored published material it considered blasphemous, for example, by removing works by Palestinian novelist and poet Mamoud Darwish at the Riyadh International Book Fair in March 2014.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were no reports during the year of the government using libel laws to suppress publication of material that criticized policies or public officials.
National Security: In most cases, authorities used the 2007 Anticybercrimes Law and the 2014 Counterterrorism Law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting several individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.
The Ministry of Culture and Information or its agencies must authorize all websites registered and hosted in the country. The General Commission for Audiovisual Media has 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. Internet access was widely available to and used by citizens of the country; more than 63 percent of the population used the internet in 2014, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
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 that set rules for internet-based and other electronic media, including chat rooms, personal blogs, and text messages.
Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by organizations such as Da’esh. Activists complained of monitoring or attempted monitoring of their communications on web-based communications applications. According to a 2015 Freedom House report, social media users were increasingly careful about what they posted, shared, or “liked” online, particularly after the passage of the 2014 Counterterrorism Law. According to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, the government coordinated with the Italian antithreat software company Hacking Team to target Saudi citizens in Qatif with surveillance malware. Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. The government required internet access providers to monitor customers and since 2009 has made it mandatory for internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records of customers. Although authorities blocked websites offering proxies, persistent internet users accessed the unfiltered internet via other means.
The Press and Publications Law criminalizes the publication or downloading of offensive sites, and authorities routinely blocked sites containing material perceived as harmful, illegal, offensive, or anti-Islamic. The governmental Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) filtered and blocked access to websites it deemed offensive, including pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting 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.
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. In August the government introduced new regulations requiring all online media websites operating in the country to have a commercial registration, physical office space, and municipal office space; editors in chief must have a college degree and possess Saudi citizenship.
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 decision. 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 cumulatively blocked approximately 400,000 websites. The CITC claimed that Facebook removed materials the CITC deemed offensive but that Twitter ignored all CITC requests.
A 2013 announcement had 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. Nonetheless, these applications remained accessible.
In November 2014 the Khobar Criminal Court sentenced human rights activist Mekhlef al-Shammary to two years in prison and 200 lashes after he commented on Twitter in support of Shia-Sunni reconciliation and attended a Shia religious gathering. On November 23, the court of appeals upheld the sentence. As of year’s end, however, authorities had not detained al-Shammary.
Laws, including the 2009 Cybercrimes Law, 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 information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online. In November the Ministry of Interior stated it would sue anyone comparing Saudi Arabia to Da’esh on social media.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government censored public artistic expression, prohibited cinemas, and restricted public musical or theatrical performances other than those considered folkloric or that were 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 November authorities ordered 80 books written by Islamist scholars, including Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna and Islamist theorist Sayyid Qutb, removed from schools and libraries. In December, Mecca governor Khaled al-Faisal banned poet Hind al-Mutairy from speaking at or attending cultural events in Mecca Province for two years, after she read a poem perceived to be insulting to tribes at the Jeddah Book Fair.