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Saudi Arabia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law does not provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. 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 are 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 government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the press and publications law, and it monitored and blocked hundreds of thousands of internet sites. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech.

The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism includes “any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.” The law also penalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the king or crown prince…or anyone who establishes or uses a website or computer program…to commit any of the offenses set out in the law.” Local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism criticized the law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and complained the government used it to prosecute peaceful expression and dissent.

Freedom of Expression: The government monitored public expressions of opinion and took advantage of legal controls to impede the free expression of opinion and restrict individuals from engaging in public criticism of the political sphere. The law forbids apostasy and blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty, although there were no recent instances of death sentences being carried out for these crimes (see section 1.a.). Statements that authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, monarchy, governing system, or Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform. 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.

Some human rights activists were detained and then released on the condition that they refrain from using social media for activism, communicating with foreign diplomats and international human rights organizations, and traveling outside the country, according to human rights organizations.

The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. From September to November, human rights groups and foreign media reported that authorities detained at least six persons, including an academic, poet, and tribal chief, for allegedly criticizing the General Entertainment Authority (GEA).

On October 10, Omar al-Muqbil, an academic at Qassim University, was allegedly arrested over a video criticizing the GEA’s recent policy of hosting concerts by international artists. In the video he accused the GEA of “erasing society’s original identity.” On October 21, poet Safar al-Dughilbi was summoned for questioning regarding a poem he wrote that referred to the “ill-practices” of the GEA. On October 22, the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account announced a chief of the Otaiba tribe, Faisal Sultan Jahjah bin Humaid, was detained and questioned following a tweet criticizing the GEA and calling for “reasonable forms of entertainment.”

On November 12, the chairman of the GEA, Turki Al al-Sheikh, warned on Twitter the government would “take legal steps against anyone who criticizes or complains about the authority’s work.”

Between November 16 and November 20, authorities detained at least 11 persons, mostly journalists, writers, and entrepreneurs, according to the ALQST. A few days later, authorities released at least eight of those detained.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Press and Publications Law governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; foreign media offices and their correspondents; and online newspapers and journals. Media fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Media. The ministry 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 law.

Media policy statements urged journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. In 2011 a royal decree amended the press law to strengthen penalties, create a special commission to judge violations, and require all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. 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 law states that violators can face fines up to 50,000 riyals ($13,300) for each violation of the law, which doubles if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Media has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which of these institutional processes accords with the law.

Although unlicensed satellite dishes were illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on them, and their use was widespread. Many foreign satellite stations broadcast a wide range of programs into the country in Arabic and other languages, including foreign news channels. Access to foreign sources of information, including via satellite dishes and the internet, was common. Foreign media were subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Media and could not operate freely. Privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.

On March 3, local media reported that authorities temporarily suspended a talk show hosted by journalist and Saudi Broadcasting Corporation president Dawood al-Shirian after it showed episodes on the guardianship system, the shortage of driving schools for women, and Saudi women seeking asylum abroad. The show returned a week later on March 10, according to Okaz daily newspaper.

On June 11, local media reported the GEA banned Kuwaiti artist Mona Shadad from appearing on local radio and television channels after Shadad appeared in a video praising Qatar.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year (see sections 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

Throughout the year NGOs, academics, and the press reported on the government’s targeting of dissidents using automated social media accounts to ensure that progovernment messages dominated social media trend lists and effectively silenced dissenting voices. Automated account activity was reportedly accompanied by online harassment by progovernment accounts in some instances. Dissidents with large social media followings were targeted for offline harassment and surveillance as well.

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.

All newspapers, blogs, and websites in the country must be government licensed. The Ministry of Media must approve the appointment of all senior editors and has authority to remove them. The government provided guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. The Saudi Press Agency reported official government news. 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 published outside the country. Authorities prevented or delayed the distribution of foreign print media covering issues considered sensitive, effectively censoring these publications.

The government censored published material it considered blasphemous, extremist, racist, or offensive or as inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order. In 2017 the PPO stated that producing and promoting “rumors that affect the public order” was a crime under the cybercrimes law and punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), or both. In June 2018 the PPO warned against sending, producing, or storing any material that stirs up tribalism and fanaticism or harms public order, which is also punishable by the above penalties. On July 10, the Shura Council called on the General Commission for Audiovisual Media to intensify efforts to prevent the broadcast of content that contravenes the country’s laws, customs, traditions, and public decorum or harms the reputation of the kingdom and its people. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the council underlined the need to enhance control of the electronic games market through surveillance of stores, markets, and websites in accordance with local and international regulations.

In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions. The Consultative Council (Majlis ash-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/Slander Laws: There were numerous reports during the year of the government using libel laws to suppress publication of material that criticized policies or public officials.

The cybercrimes law provides for a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment for “defamation and infliction of damage upon others through the use of various information technology devices,” including social media and social networks.

National Security: Authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.

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