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Iran

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, except when words are deemed “detrimental to the fundamental principles of Islam or the rights of the public.” According to the law, “anyone who engages in any type of propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran or in support of opposition groups and associations shall be sentenced to three months to one year of imprisonment.”

Article 26 of the 2016 Charter on Citizens’ Rights acknowledges the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression. The charter grants citizens the right freely to seek, receive, publish, and communicate views and information, using any means of communication, but it has not been implemented.

The law provides for prosecution of persons accused of instigating crimes against the state or national security or “insulting” Islam. The government severely restricted freedom of speech and of the press and used the law to intimidate or prosecute persons who directly criticized the government or raised human rights problems, as well as to bring ordinary citizens into compliance with the government’s moral code.

Freedom of Expression: Authorities did not permit individuals to criticize publicly the country’s system of government, supreme leader, or official religion. Security forces and the judiciary punished those who violated these restrictions, as well as those who publicly criticized the president, cabinet, and parliament.

The government monitored meetings, movements, and communications of its citizens and often charged persons with crimes against national security and of insulting the regime, citing as evidence letters, emails, and other public and private communications. Authorities threatened arrest or punishment for the expression of ideas or images they viewed as violations of the legal moral code.

Press and Media Freedom: The government’s Press Supervisory Board issues press licenses, which it sometimes revoked in response to articles critical of the government or the regime, or it did not renew them for individuals facing criminal charges or incarcerated for political reasons. During the year the government banned, blocked, closed, or censored publications deemed critical of officials.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (Ershad) severely limited and controlled foreign media organizations’ ability to work in the country. The ministry required foreign correspondents to provide detailed travel plans and topics of proposed stories before granting visas, limiting their ability to travel within the country, and forced them to work with a local “minder.”

Under the constitution private broadcasting is illegal. The government maintained a monopoly over all television and radio broadcasting facilities through IRIB, a government agency. Radio and television programming, the principal source of news for many citizens, particularly in rural areas with limited internet access, reflected the government’s political and socioreligious ideology. The government jammed satellite broadcasts as signals entered the country, a continuous practice since at least 2003. Satellite dishes remained illegal but ubiquitous. Those who distributed, used, or repaired satellite dishes faced fines up to 90 million rials ($2,100). Police, using warrants provided by the judiciary, launched campaigns to confiscate privately owned satellite dishes throughout the country.

Under the constitution the supreme leader appoints the head of the audiovisual policy agency, a council composed of representatives of the president, judiciary, and parliament. The Ministry of Culture reviews all potential publications, including foreign printed materials, prior to their domestic release and may deem books unpublishable, remove text, or require word substitutions for terms deemed inappropriate.

Independent print media companies existed, but the government severely limited their operations.

Violence and Harassment: The government and its agents harassed, detained, abused, and prosecuted publishers, editors, and journalists, including those involved in internet-based media, for their reporting. The government also harassed many journalists’ families.

Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported that the government arrested an estimated 10 citizen-journalists for covering the nationwide protests that began in December 2017. According to RSF, several citizen journalists were beaten and arrested while recording renewed protests in Tehran on June 25-26. Authorities banned national and international media outlets from covering the demonstrations in an attempt to censor coverage of the protests and to intimidate citizens from disseminating information about them.

In February, RSF reported that several employees of the Sufi news website Majzooban Nor were arrested while covering clashes between security forces and Gonabadi Dervishes. Majzooban Nor was the only independent website covering the dervishes, and most of the arrested journalists were reportedly severely beaten by police and militia members. In July and August, Majzooban Norjournalists were sentenced for lashes and prison terms of up to 26 years in connection for their work covering the dervishes’ protests.

According to CHRI, in August the Mizan News Agency, which functions as the official news website of the judiciary, published statements that human rights activists interpreted as a call for vigilante violence against BBC journalists and their families. The BBC had filed a complaint at the UN Human Rights Council in March against Iranian authorities for their campaign of harassment against BBC Persian staff.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The law forbids government censorship but also prohibits dissemination of information the government considers “damaging.” During the year the government censored publications that criticized official actions or contradicted official views or versions of events. “Damaging” information included discussions of women’s rights, the situation of minorities, criticism of government corruption, and references to mistreatment of detainees.

In September media reported that General Prosecutor Mohammad Jafar Montazeri ordered the closure of Sedayeh Eslahat, a reformist newspaper, on charges of insulting Shia Islam. According to reports, the newspaper had published an article on female-to-male sex reassignment surgery, titling the article, “Ruqayyah became Mahdi after 22 years.” Ruqayyah was the daughter of Hussein, a revered Shia Imam, while Mahdi, according to Shia beliefs, is the name of the 12th Shia Imam. Montazeri also called for the punishment of the newspaper’s editor.

Officials routinely intimidated journalists into practicing self-censorship. Public officials often filed criminal complaints against newspapers, and the Press Supervisory Board, which regulates media content and publication, referred such complaints to the Press Court for further action, including possible closure, suspension, and fines. IRNA determined the main topics and types of news to be covered and distributed topics required for reporting directly to various media outlets, according to the IHRDC.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government commonly used libel laws or cited national security to suppress criticism. According to the law, if any publication contains personal insults, libel, false statements, or criticism, the insulted individual has the right to respond in the publication within one month. By law “insult” or “libel” against the government, government representatives, or foreign officials while they are on Iranian soil, as well as “the publication of lies” with the intent to alter, but not overthrow, the government are considered political crimes and subject to certain trial and detention procedures (see section 1.e.). The government applied the law throughout the year, often citing statements made in various media outlets or on internet platforms that criticized the government, in the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing of individuals for crimes against national security.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet, monitored private online communications, and censored online content. Individuals and groups practiced self-censorship online.

The Ministries of Culture and of Information and Communications Technology are the main regulatory bodies for content and internet systems in the country. The Supreme Leader’s Office also includes the Supreme Council of Cyberspace, charged with regulating content and systems. The government collected personally identifiable information in connection with citizens’ peaceful expression of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, 60 percent of the population used the internet in 2017. According to the Ministry of Culture, 70 percent of youth between the ages of 15 and 29 used the internet. NGOs reported the government continued to filter content on the internet to ban access to particular sites and to filter traffic based on its content. The law makes it illegal to distribute circumvention tools and virtual private networks, and Minister of Information and Communications Technology Jahromi was quoted in the press stating that using circumvention tools is illegal.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance must approve all internet service providers. The government also requires all owners of websites and blogs in the country to register with the agencies that compose the Commission to Determine the Instances of Criminal Content (also referred to as the Committee in Charge of Determining Unauthorized Websites or Committee in Charge of Determining Offensive Content), the governmental organization that determines censoring criteria. These agencies include the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Information and Communications Technology, the Intelligence Ministry, and the Tehran Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Ministry of Information and Communications Technology regulations prohibit households and cybercafes from having high-speed internet access. The government periodically reduced internet speed to discourage downloading material.

According to media reports, former minister of information and communications technology Mahmoud Vaezi announced in 2017 that the government had improved methods to control the internet and had shut down a number of online platforms. The government’s decade-long project to build a National Information Network (NIN) resulted in its launch in 2016. The NIN enabled officials to allow higher speed and easier access on domestic traffic, while limiting international internet traffic. RSF reported that the NIN acted like an intranet system, with full content control and user identification. Authorities may disconnect this network from global internet content, and they reportedly intended to use it to provide government propaganda and disrupt circumvention tools. During nationwide protests in December 2017, authorities used NIN technology to cut off access to the global internet for 30 minutes.

Authorities continued to block online messaging tools, such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, although the government operated Twitter accounts under the names of Supreme Leader Khamenei, President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Zarif, and other government-associated officials and entities.

Government organizations, including the Basij “Cyber Council,” the Cyber Police, and the Cyber Army, which observers presumed to be controlled by the IRGC, monitored, identified, and countered alleged cyberthreats to national security. These organizations especially targeted citizens’ activities on officially banned social networking websites such as Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Flickr, and they reportedly harassed persons who criticized the government or raised sensitive social problems.

According to a report by CHRI, in May the Judiciary (the prosecutor of Branch 2 of the Culture and Media Prosecutor’s Office in Tehran) blocked the popular messaging app Telegram. Telegram, used by approximately half the population as a platform for a wide variety of personal, political, business, and cultural content, had become a primary internet platform. As a foreign-owned company with servers outside the country, Telegram was not under the control of national censors. Many officials blamed Telegram for the spread of protests in December 2017. After the ban on Telegram, the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology began to disrupt access to circumvention tools used to access blocked applications or sites.

RSF reported that several bloggers and online journalists were arrested during the year for their expression. Blogger Hengameh Shahidi was arrested in May for tweets about her previous detention. Mohammad Hossien Hidari, the editor of the Dolat e Bahar news website, was arrested in May. His families and lawyers did not know what he had been charged with, and his website was inaccessible after his arrest. Amir Hossein Miresmaili, a journalist with the daily newspaper Jahan Sanat (Industry World), was sentenced to 10 years in prison on August 22 for a tweet criticizing a mullah in Mashhad. Miresmaili’s sentence also included a two-year ban on journalistic activity on social networks after his release from prison. According to his lawyer, Miresmaili was charged with “insulting the sacredness of Islam,” “insulting government agents and officials,” “publishing false information designed to upset public opinion,” and “publishing immoral articles contrary to public decency.”

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government significantly restricted academic freedom and the independence of higher education institutions. Authorities systematically targeted university campuses to suppress social and political activism by banning independent student organizations, imprisoning student activists, removing faculty, preventing students from enrolling or continuing their education because of their political or religious affiliation or activism, and restricting social sciences and humanities curricula.

According to a July HRW report, following the protests of December 2017 and January 2018, intelligence officers arrested at least 150 students and courts sentenced 17 to prison terms. Many of the arrested students did not participate in the protests but were preemptively detained, according to reports. HRW reported that as of mid-July, revolutionary courts had sentenced at least eight student protesters from universities in Tehran and Tabriz to prison sentences of up to eight years. Some students were banned from membership in political parties or participating in media, including social media, for two years.

Authorities barred Bahai students from higher education and harassed those who studied through the unrecognized online university of the Bahai Institute for Higher Education. According to a HRANA report in September, more than 50 Bahai college applicants had been denied enrollment for their religious affiliation (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).

The government maintained controls on cinema, music, theater, and art exhibits and censored those productions deemed to transgress Islamic values. The government censored or banned films deemed to promote secularism, non-Islamic ideas about women’s rights, unethical behavior, drug abuse, violence, or alcoholism.

According to the IHRDC, the nine-member film review council of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, made up of clerics, former directors, former parliamentarians, and academics, must approve the content of every film before production and again before screening. Films may be barred arbitrarily from screening even if all the appropriate permits were received in advance.

According to media reports, renowned film director Jafar Panahi was banned again from traveling to the 2018 Cannes film festival. Panahi has been barred from traveling since 2010, when he was charged with generating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”

Officials continued to discourage teaching music in schools. Authorities considered heavy metal and foreign music religiously offensive, and police continued to repress underground concerts and arrest musicians and music distributors. The Ministry of Culture must officially approve song lyrics, music, and album covers as complying with the country’s moral values, although many underground musicians released albums without seeking such permission.

According to media reports in February, Benyamin Bahadori, a pop singer and composer, cancelled a concert in Kerman after female members of his music group were banned from appearing on stage. In April, according to media reports, the head of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in Mashhad was arrested for undermining public decency and disrespecting laws when videos surfaced on social media networks showing young men and women dancing at a concert at a shopping center in the city.

Israel, Golan Heights, West Bank, and Gaza

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The law generally provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.

The law imposes tort liability on any person who knowingly issues a public call for an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of the State of Israel or of institutions or entities in areas under its control in the West Bank. Plaintiffs must prove direct economic harm to claim damages under the “antiboycott” legislation. The law also permits the finance minister to impose administrative sanctions on those calling for such a boycott, including restrictions on participating in tenders for contracts with the government and denial of government benefits. According to an August 28 report in Ha’aretz, however, the Ministry of Finance’s legal advisor declined 14 requests to apply such sanctions over the prior 12 months.

In March 2017 the Knesset passed an amendment barring entry to the country to visitors who called for such a boycott. Criteria published in July 2017 by the Population and Immigration Authority restricted enforcement of this law to prominent activists promoting a boycott individually or as a leader of an organization. Following its passage, in January the Ministry of Strategic Affairs published a list of 20 organizations whose members would be refused entry to Israel. Based on the law, authorities denied entry to 10 visitors throughout the year, according to the government. In an October 18 court ruling in the case of a foreign student denied entry, the Supreme Court reversed the denial and restricted application of the law to visitors who are “currently” involved in “actively, consistently, and persistently calling publicly for a boycott,” as stated in the July 2017 regulations.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits hate speech and content liable to incite to violence or discrimination on grounds of race, origin, religion, nationality, and gender.

The maximum penalty for desecrating the Israeli flag is three years in prison and a fine of 58,400 shekels ($16,200).

In cases of speech that are defined as incitement to violence or hate speech, the law empowers police to limit freedom of expression.

On July 16, the Knesset passed a law defining service in the IDF or national service alternative as an objective of the public education system and banning from schools any NGO whose activity “gravely and significantly contradicts the objectives of state education” or “actively initiates legal or political proceedings outside Israel against IDF soldiers for an action carried out in the course of their military duty or against the State of Israel.” The goal of the law was to “prohibit individuals or organizations that are not part of the education system from engaging in activities within an educational institution when the nature of the activity undermines the goals of state education,” according to its explanatory note. Both supporters and opponents of the bill said it targeted the NGO Breaking the Silence, which described the organization’s activities as collecting and publishing “the testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories in order to generate public discourse on the reality of the occupation, with the aim of bringing it to an end.” Breaking the Silence criticized the new law as a violation of freedom of political expression. The Ministry of Education had not issued regulations necessary to implement the law as of the end of the year.

Israeli security officials prohibited Palestine Liberation Organization- or Palestinian Authority (PA)-affiliated groups from meeting in Jerusalem based on a 1995 law banning the PA from engaging in political, diplomatic, security or security-related activities in Israel, including Jerusalem. For example, on October 3, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan ordered the cancelation of a PA-sponsored event commemorating a Palestinian resident of Jordan who worked to place schools for Palestinians under the authority of the Jordanian Waqf after the 1967 war.

Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction, with a few exceptions.

In August 2017 the Israeli Journalists Association filed a lawsuit against the minister of public security, police, and the Office of the Attorney General demanding that they stop harming journalists and freedom of the press, refrain from irrelevant restrictions on coverage, and set a transparent policy on maintaining press freedom and journalists’ rights. Police prevented photojournalist Debbie Hill from documenting a strike by Arab citizens of Israel in Jerusalem on October 1, according to media watchdog The Seventh Eye. Following a Supreme Court order, the police submitted to the court on October 18 a new procedure to regulate the work of journalists in areas experiencing clashes, which authorities claimed balanced freedom of press and the security requirements of policy. On November 1, the Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit, stating that it was too early to judge the new regulations, but urged police and journalists to maintain a dialogue.

Violence and Harassment: Palestinian journalists who were able to obtain entry permits, as well as Jerusalem-based Palestinian journalists, reported incidents of harassment, racism, and occasional violence when they sought to cover news in Jerusalem, especially in the Old City and its vicinity. This included reports of alleged harassment by Israeli soldiers and acts of violence against Palestinian and Arab-Israeli journalists that prevented them from covering news stories. For example, on April 18, Israeli authorities closed the East Jerusalem offices of the Palestinian Elia Youth Media Foundation after then defense minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed the organization recruited young Palestinians to create videos that encouraged violence. The Committee to Protect Journalists rejected the accusation and noted that Lieberman provided no evidence of his claim. The government stated that it allowed Palestinian journalists interested in visiting Israel to request an entry permit and instructed IDF soldiers to allow journalists as much freedom to carry out their work as operational circumstances permit, and that it investigated thoroughly any allegations of mistreatment by Israeli security forces.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: All media organizations must submit to military censors any material relating to specific military issues or strategic infrastructure problems, such as oil and water supplies. Organizations may appeal the censor’s decisions to the Supreme Court, and the censor may not appeal a court judgment. In July 2017 the Israel Democracy Institute stated that power to prohibit publication of news should be transferred from the military censor to the judicial system.

News printed or broadcast abroad is subject to security censorship. The government regularly enacted restrictive orders on sensitive security information and continuing investigations, and required foreign correspondents, as well as local media, to abide by these orders. According to data provided by the armed forces to the news outlet Mekomit and the NGO Movement for Freedom of Information, in 2017 the censor intervened in more than 2,350 articles of 11,000 submitted to it and banned 271 articles.

While the government retained the authority to censor the printing of publications for security concerns, anecdotal evidence suggested authorities did not actively review the Jerusalem-based al-Quds newspaper or other Jerusalem-based Arabic publications. Those publications, however, reported they engaged in self-censorship.

National Security: The law criminalizes as “terrorist acts” speech supporting terrorism, including public praise of a terrorist organization, display of symbols, expression of slogans, and “incitement.” On March 7, the Knesset amended the law to authorize restrictions on the release of bodies of terrorists and their funerals to prevent “incitement to terror or identification with a terrorist organization or an act of terror.” The government issued 59 indictments and courts convicted 12 persons under the law as of December 25, including the May 3 conviction by the Nazareth Magistrate’s Court of Dareen Tatour, an Arab citizen, as a result of the poems, pictures, and other media she posted online in 2015.

On July 6, police released to house arrest Sheikh Raed Salah, head of the Northern Islamic Movement, which the government outlawed in 2015. Authorities indicted Salah for incitement to terrorism and supporting an illegal association after arresting him in August 2017.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The government monitored electronic communications for security purposes. Based on a 2017 law authorizing district court judges to restrict access to internet sites to prevent the commission of crimes, district court judges approved requests from the state attorney’s cyber unit to remove 15 websites. The state attorney’s cyber unit’s end-of-year report for 2017 stated that requests to social media outlets to remove content based on its assessment that the content is illegal under the law led to the removal of almost 10,500 online postings, up from 1,554 in 2016. According to the report, 73 percent of the requests were due to offenses related to a terror organization, and 26 percent were due to incitement offenses. Adalah wrote a letter to the attorney general on November 21 stating that the cyber unit should cease submitting requests to social media providers to remove content because only the judicial branch has the authority to determine whether any particular content constitutes a crime.

In August authorities arrested East Jerusalem resident Suzanne Abu Ghanem on suspicion of incitement to violence and terrorism, based on Facebook posts about the death of her son during the 2017 demonstrations on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.

Internet access was widely available. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 82 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The law prohibits institutions that receive government funding from engaging in commemoration of the Nakba, or “catastrophe,” the term used by Palestinians to refer to the displacement of Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. According to an August 28 report in Ha’aretz, the Ministry of Finance rejected 98 requests to enforce the Nakba Law over the prior 12 months, including 60 requests from a political activist and 17 from Culture Minister Miri Regev.

In May, Education Minister and Chairman of the Council for Higher Education (CHE) Naftali Bennett agreed with the council of university heads regarding a new draft code of ethics to prevent academics from engaging in “political activity,” defined as supporting or opposing a party, political figure, or position on a topic under debate in the Knesset. According to the agreement, the CHE will not compel universities to adopt a unified ethics code, and the government will not advance legislation regarding an ethics code. Instead, academic institutions agreed to adopt five principles to their regulations, including nondiscrimination on the basis of political opinion and a regulation prohibiting faculty from presenting a personal political view as the view of the university.

Palestinian sources reported that Israeli authorities continued to provide an edited version of the Palestinian Authority curriculum that deleted information on Palestinian history and culture to schools in Palestinian-majority neighborhoods in East Jerusalem and sought to tie funding for those schools to the use of Israeli curriculum (see the West Bank and Gaza report for concerns regarding incitement and anti-Semitism in Palestinian Authority textbooks).

Israel maintained prohibitions on some prominent Jerusalem-based Palestinian institutions, such as the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and Orient House, which had been the de facto Palestine Liberation Organization office. The government renewed a military closure order for these and other institutions on the grounds they violated the Oslo Accords by conducting political activities or otherwise operating on behalf of the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem. The government likewise shut down several Palestinian academic and cultural events taking place in Jerusalem due to Palestinian Authority participation or support. For example, on July 14, authorities disrupted an al-Quds University conference in East Jerusalem on “Islamic Endowment Properties in Jerusalem” due to alleged Palestinian Authority sponsorship, and they temporarily detained a member of the university’s board of trustees before releasing him.

Qatar

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press in accordance with the law, but the government limited these rights. Self-censorship remained the primary obstacle to free speech and press.

Freedom of Expression: Citizens did not regularly discuss sensitive political and religious issues in public forums, but citizens discussed these issues in private and on social media. The law prohibits residents from criticizing the Amir. Members of the majority foreign population exercised self-censorship on sensitive topics. The law penalizes damaging, removing, or performing an action that expresses hate and contempt to the country’s flag, the Gulf Cooperation Council flag, or the flag of any international organization or authority by up to three years in prison. The use of the national flag without formal permission from authorities, displaying a damaged or discolored flag, or changing the flag by adding photographs, text, or designs to it are also criminalized.

Press and Media Freedom: The law includes restrictive procedures on the establishment of newspapers, their closure, and the confiscation of assets of a publication.

Members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials owned all print media. Both private and government-owned television and radio reflected government views although call-in shows allowed for some citizen criticism of government ministries and policies. While media generally did not criticize authorities or the country’s policies, specific ministries and even individual ministers were regular targets of criticism in print media. The government owned and partially funded the Doha-based al-Jazeera satellite television network, which carried regional, international, and theme-based programming. It also partially funded other media outlets operating in the country. Some observers and former al-Jazeera employees alleged that the government influenced the content produced by that news outlet.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Qatar Media Corporation, the Ministry of Culture and Sports, and customs officials censored material. The government reviewed, censored, or banned foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. In July international media reported that the local distributor of The New York Times censored a number of articles covering lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) issues. The Government Communication Office issued a statement in July explaining that “the government shall examine the issue of the removed articles with the local distributor and take corrective action if needed.” Journalists and publishers continued to self-censor due to political and economic pressures when reporting on government policies or material deemed denigrating to Islam, the ruling family, and relations with neighboring states.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel and slander, including insult to dignity. A journalist may be fined up to 100,000 Qatari riyals (QAR) ($27,500) and imprisoned for a year for defamation and reporting of “false news.” Laws restrict the publication of information that slanders the Amir or heir apparent; defames the Abrahamic faiths or includes blasphemy; harms the national currency or the economic situation; violate the dignity of persons, the proceedings of investigations, and prosecutions in relation to family status; and punishes violators with up to seven years’ imprisonment.

National Security: Laws restrict the publication of information that could defame the state or endanger its safety; incite the overthrow of the regime or harm supreme state interests; report official secret agreements; or prejudice heads of state or disturb relations.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The maximum punishments for violations of the cybercrime law are up to three years in prison and a fine of 500,000 QAR ($137,500). The law prohibits any online activity that threatens the safety of the state, its general order, and its local or international peace. It also criminalizes the spread of “false news,” forces internet providers to block objectionable content, and bans the publication of personal or family information.

The law requires internet service providers to block objectionable content upon request from judicial authorities. Internet providers also are obligated to maintain long-term electronic records and traffic data for the government. The government-controlled internet service provider Ooredoo restricted the expression of views via the internet and censored the internet for political, religious, and pornographic content through a proxy server, which monitored and blocked websites, email, and chat rooms. Users who believed authorities had mistakenly censored a site could request that the site be reviewed by the Ministry of Transportation and Communication for suitability; there were no reports that any websites were unblocked based on this procedure.

More than 99 percent of households were connected to the internet.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The constitution provides for freedom of expression and scientific research. Instructors at Qatar University noted that they sometimes exercised self-censorship. Instructors at foreign-based universities operating in the country, however, reported they generally enjoyed academic freedom. There were occasional government restrictions on cultural events, and some groups organizing cultural events reported they exercised self-censorship. Authorities censored books, films, and internet sites for political, religious, and sexual content and for vulgar and obscene language.

In October the Doha branch of an American university faced backlash from Qatari social media users, including threats of violence against campus staff, following publicity of an advertisement for a discussion titled “This House Believes That Major Religions Should Portray God as a Woman.” The event was eventually cancelled by campus management who stated that the organizers had failed to follow standard operating procedures to obtain permission to hold the event.

Saudi Arabia

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and 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 legal definition of terrorism, according to the 2017 counterterrorism law, 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 counterterrorism 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 charged a number of individuals with crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year.

From May 15 to year’s end, authorities arrested at least 30 prominent women activists and their male supporters and imposed travel bans on others, in connection with their advocacy for lifting the ban on women driving. Those arrested included some of the women who first defied the driving ban in 1990, as well as others who expressed solidarity with detained activists. At least 12 persons remained in detention “after sufficient evidence was made available and for their confessions of charges attributed to them.” In a June 2 statement, the public prosecutor stated the detainees had admitted to communicating and cooperating with individuals and organizations opposed to the kingdom, recruiting persons to get secret information to hurt the country’s interests, and offering material and emotional support to hostile elements abroad. State-linked media labelled those arrested as traitors and “agents of embassies.” The detained included Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan, Hatoon al-Fassi, Loujain al-Hathloul, Hatoon al-Fassi, Samar Badawi, and Nouf Abdulaziz al-Jerawi, among others.

In August authorities arrested Mecca Grand Mosque Imam Sheikh Salih al-Talib. In his last Friday sermon on July 13, Al-Talib discussed the duty in Islam to speak out against evil in public. Al-Talib was the first imam of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina to be detained.

In September the SCC opened trials against clerics, academics, and media persons for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, including prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari. The three were arrested in September 2017, and the public prosecutor was reportedly seeking the death penalty against them. The public prosecutor brought 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which alleged ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and Qatari government, in addition to his public support for imprisoned dissidents. None referred to specific acts of violence or incitement to acts of violence, according to a HRW statement on September 12. The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.”

Press and Media Freedom: 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 Information. 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 Information has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and sharia court judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which process accords with the law.

On July 12, authorities arrested influential religious scholar and Sahwa (Awakening) movement figure Safar al-Hawali, four of his sons, and his brother after al-Hawali reportedly published a book criticizing the Saudi royal family and the country’s foreign policy.

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 Information 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 February 19, the Ministry of Culture and Information banned writer Muhammad al-Suhaimi from writing and taking part in any media activity, and referred him to an investigation committee for criticizing the Muslim call to prayer (adhan) and calling for reducing the number of mosques. Speaking to the MBC TV channel, al-Suhaimi had criticized the volume of the call to prayer, calling it a nuisance.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year.

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 dominate social media trend lists and effectively silence 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.

On February 8, the SCC sentenced prominent newspaper columnist Saleh al-Shehi to five years in prison, followed by a five-year travel ban, for insulting the royal court and its employees. Al-Shehi was reportedly arrested on January 3 after a televised appearance on the privately owned Rotana Khalejia channel in which he accused the royal court of being “one of the institutions that reinforced corruption” in the country, citing examples such as granting plots of land to citizens based on personal connections.

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 Information 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 June 2017 the PPO stated that producing and promoting “rumors that affect the public order” was a crime under the anti-cybercrimes law and punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), or both. On June 13, 2018, the PPO warned against sending, producing, or storing any material that stirs up tribalism and fanaticism, and harms public order, which is also punishable by the above penalties.

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 anti-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.” In 2014 the law was amended to include social media and social networks.

On May 30, the SCC in Riyadh sentenced academic and media professional Mohammed al-Hudaif to five years in prison, followed by a five-year travel and social media ban, and ordered his Twitter account shut down. Al-Hudaif was convicted of “insulting neighboring states” following a comment he wrote about the visit of the former Egyptian justice minister, Ahmed al-Zind, to the UAE. The government deemed Hudaif’s tweet insulting to both the Egyptian and Emirati authorities. He was convicted of destroying national cohesion, publishing writings hostile to state policy, and communicating with members of bodies hostile to the state (the Muslim Brotherhood), according to Al-Qst rights group.

On September 3, the public prosecutor warned that producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes, and disrupts public order, religious values and public morals through social media would be considered a cybercrime punishable by a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of three million riyals ($800,000).

National Security: Authorities used the anti-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.

INTERNET FREEDOM

The Ministry of 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, and 82 percent of the population used the internet in 2017, according to International Telecommunication Union data.

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. On May 27, then information minister Awwad bin Saleh al-Awwad approved the executive regulations for types and forms of electronic publishing activities. The list consists of 17 items defining the mechanisms of dealing with electronic publishing activities, classifications, and ways of obtaining the appropriate regulatory licenses to carry out the required activities. Laws, including the anti-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. Security authorities actively monitored internet activity, both to enforce laws, regulations, and societal norms and to monitor recruitment efforts by extremist organizations such as ISIS. Activists complained of monitoring or attempted monitoring of their communications on web-based communications applications.

Access to the internet is legally available only through government-authorized internet service providers. The government required internet service providers to monitor customers and required 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.

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 against officials or religious authorities with terrorism, blasphemy, and apostasy.

On February 12, the SCC in the western city of Tabuk held the first hearing for student and activist Noha al-Balawi. Al-Balawi was detained on January 23 after posting a video online in which she criticized the country’s potential normalization of ties with Israel. According to the United Kingdom-based Saudi rights group Al-Qst, Balawi was charged under anti-cybercrime laws and faced up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million riyals ($800,000). On February 22, authorities reportedly released al-Balawi, according to online activists and media sources.

On February 27, the SCC convicted computer engineer Essam Koshak of posting tweets that “infringe on public order and religious values” and sentenced him to four years in prison followed by a four-year ban on travel and social media usage. According to multiple NGOs, Koshak tweeted in support of the 2017 social media campaign #EndMaleGuardianship, organized by HRW. According to court documents and trial observations, the prosecution charged Koshak with creating the #EndMaleGuardianship social media campaign and, in so doing, undermining public order and “violating freedom of expression.”

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 adult content, as well as pages calling for domestic political, social, or economic reforms or supporting human rights, including websites of expatriate Saudi dissidents.

The CITC coordinated decisions with the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency on blocking phishing sites seeking to obtain confidential personal or financial information. Authorities submitted all other requests to block sites to an interagency committee, chaired by the Ministry of Interior, for decision. Under the Telecommunication Act, failure by service providers to block banned sites can result in a fine of five million riyals ($1.33 million).

The CITC claimed that Facebook removed materials that the CITC deemed offensive but that Twitter ignored all CITC requests. In 2016 the CITC announced it was no longer blocking any free voice, video, or messaging services after criticisms on social media that these services had been blocked. In September 2017 the CITC announced the unblocking of calling features for private messenger apps that met regulatory requirements in the country, such as Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Snapchat, Skype, Line, Telegram, and Tango. Other video-calling apps, including WhatsApp and Viber, however, reported services were still blocked.

The government continued blocking Qatari websites such as al-Jazeera, an action it began in May 2017, due to a dispute between Qatar and a group of countries that included Saudi Arabia.

In June 2017 Ministry of Information spokesperson Hani al-Ghofaily stated that writing for blocked websites, providing them with materials to publish, or promoting alternative addresses to access them is a crime under the anti-cybercrimes law.

The government reportedly collected information concerning the identity of persons peacefully expressing political, religious, or ideological opinions or beliefs online.

ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS

The government restricted some public artistic expression but opened up cultural expression in a number of areas. 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 2016 King Salman issued royal decrees creating the General Authority for Entertainment (GEA) and the General Authority for Culture, with a mandate to expand the country’s entertainment and cultural offerings in line with its social and economic reform plan, known as Vision 2030. During the year the GEA sponsored events dedicated to film, comics, music, and dance. On June 2, King Salman issued a royal order creating the Ministry of Culture, separating it from the Information Ministry, and appointed Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud as its minister. On April 18, the country’s first cinema in more than 35 years opened after a ban was lifted in 2017. AMC Entertainment was granted the first license to operate cinemas in the country and was expected to open more theaters over the next five years, according to state media.

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