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Multiple forms of media including books, newspapers, magazines, films, television, and content published on the Internet are censored in Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi government closely monitors media and restricts it under official state law. Changes have been made to lessen these restrictions; however, some government-led efforts to control information have also drawn international attention. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders described the government as, "relentless in its censorship of the Saudi media and the Internet," and in 2018, it ranked Saudi Arabia 169th out of 180 countries for freedom of the press.
Though formal laws regarding censorship were not yet in place for Saudi Arabia, hostile conditions in the country led leaders to take on stricter rules that in turn affected the media. Specifically, the Iranian Islamic revolution and seizure of the Grand Mosque by extremists in 1979 led the government to crack down on women and radical Sunnis. The government under King Khalid, and later his brother King Fahd, enforced policies to help counteract potential hostility and unrest, such as working closely with the religious establishment to create reforms.
Government regulation of media was not formally detailed until 1992, when a new wave of discontent emerged. The government released a 1992 media policy statement, which outlined aims for journalists including both a religious and political component in favor of Islam and Saudi Arabia respectively. The government either had direct control over, or indirectly exerted power over, media sources in order to prevent any criticism of the royal family, the government, or Islamic values.
Saudi Arabia is distinct from other Gulf Cooperation Council countries in that its constitution does not protect freedom of expression. The Basic Law of Governance, enacted as an informal constitution in 1992, formally specified limits to free expression. Article 39 of the kingdom's Basic Law of Governance states that:
[The media] is prohibited from committing acts leading to disorder and division, affecting the security of the state and its public relations, or undermining human dignity and rights.
The Law of Printing and Publication, enacted in 2003, expanded upon the regulation of media, encompassing books, drawings, writings, photographs, films, recordings, radio and television broadcasts. The law, which is enforced by the Ministry of Culture and Information, requires government licensing for any of the aforementioned activities. It lays out a series of restrictions, including that the printed matter will not conflict with Sharia law, will not threaten public security, and will not "stir up discord among citizens." Though this law was written in the context of print media, it also extends to electronic media. In 2007, the Saudi government issued an Anti-Cyber Crimes Law, which lists cyber crimes that can result in imprisonment and fines. The law specifically prohibits content that negatively impacts public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy, "through the information network or computers," which can include content that promotes drug use, pornography, gambling, or terrorism.
A 2011 royal decree extended the licensing requirement to include online newspapers and blogs and increased penalties for violations of the earlier press law. Those penalties include large fines, removal of the content, and potentially closure of the establishment responsible, along with suspending or banning the person or group from future publishing. In charging individuals with violations, the government often applies these laws, sometimes in conjunction with counterterrorism laws. These laws extend the definition of terrorism to include content that is damaging to Saudi Arabia, its reputation, stability, and security.
The Ministry of Information is responsible for overseeing Saudi media and has been called the "main agent of censorship" in the kingdom. A special unit, the Management of Publications department, analyzes publications and issues "directives" to newspapers and magazines that state the way in which a given topic must be treated. According to the Encyclopedia of Censorship, "The main effect of this system has been to impose on journalists rigorous self-censorship."
The print media in Saudi Arabia, though privately-owned, is closely tied to the government. The registration of new journalists, changes in staff of a media outlet, and creation of new outlets all require government approval. Due to government subsidies, the daily newspapers often rely on state support and tend to align with the Saudi Press Agency on more controversial topics. Despite this, newspapers have increasingly published stories on topics such as crime, drug trafficking, and extremism.
Some censorship of foreign newspapers and magazines targets content of sexual nature, including nudity, pornography, and homesexuality. In 1994, all Saudi women magazines were banned by the Ministry of Information. This move was considered to be related to the pressures of the religious establishment or ulema. After this ban, nineteen of twenty-four magazines closed down due to the fact that their major revenue had been advertisement earnings paid by Saudi companies.
There are numerous documented instances of the Saudi government forcing the resignation of journalists or banning them from publishing in the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported in 2002 that the Ministry of Information forced two different newspaper editors to resign and fired the head of a publishing house due to the critical and liberal nature of what they had published. Several more writers were banned from the press in 2003, including Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a writer for Al-Watan and Arab News and a prominent women's rights activist.
Though the Ministry of Information is responsible for monitoring the press, the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia also alerts of the government of journalists. In some cases, religious clerics called for punishments including death to be given to critics of Wahhabi Islam in the media. These punishments were sometimes issued in religious court, such as in 2003 when the journalist Mansour al-Nogaidan claimed he was sentenced to 75 lashes for his articles criticizing the religious doctrine of the country.
The case of journalist Jamal Khashoggi gained international attention. After many years serving as a reporter and foreign correspondent for several Arab newspapers, Khashoggi worked as a deputy editor-in-chief of Arab News from 1999 to 2003. In 2003, he became the editor-in-chief for Al Watan, a daily newspaper that pushed for reform in Saudi Arabia and published information of more sensitive issues, specifically regarding the Riyadh compound bombings. Khashoggi was dismissed from his position at Al Watan because under his leadership columnists wrote articles questioning the religious police and criticizing the country's following of Ibn Taymiyyah, the Islamic scholar who inspired Wahhabism. He left Saudi, and began working in the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C., but later returned to Al Watan until he was once again removed three years later.
After leaving Al Watan, Khashoggi appeared as a commentator on different Arab and international news channels and wrote for a variety of publications. Khashoggi was a columnist for Al-Hayat newspaper but was banned in December 2016 after he wrote articles criticizing Donald Trump. He left the Kingdom, going into a "self-imposed exile" in the United States in 2017 due to fear of arrest, and began writing for The Washington Post.
On 2 October 2018, Khashoggi went missing after he entered the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Saudi officials claimed that they were not responsible for Khashoggi's death but were not able to provide evidence of what happened. Meanwhile Turkish officials stated that Saudi agents killed and dismembered him. Saudi officials later reported that Khashoggi died in a fight with people he met in the consulate. After several weeks of contradictory claims from the Saudi government, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency concluded that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, although the matter of who directed the assassination is still in question by some parties.
This case was highly publicized due to the notability of Khashoggi as a reporter with ties to the royal family who faced numerous restrictions in his career as a journalist.
In May 2019, Amnesty International claimed that Saudi Arabia used NSO Group’s Pegasus software to target activists and journalists, including Khashoggi. Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech claimed that “governments who are known for outrageous human rights abuses” use this software to track down the dissidents and human rights defenders. The Kingdom Came to Canada, a Citizen Lab’s report, shows how Omar Abdulaziz, another Saudi activist residing in Canada, was targeted by the Saudi government to access the sensitive conversations he had with his friend Jamal Khashoggi. Abdulaziz had also filed a law suit in December 2018, alleging that the Saudi authorities used Pegasus spyware to hack his phone and access his conversations.
Public cinemas became illegal in 1979 when conservative clerics deemed cinemas a corrupting influence, claiming that both Western and Arab-language films were, "contrary to the teachings of Islam."
Over time, the ban on movie theaters was counteracted by the introduction of satellite television and video downloads, as well as by Saudis regularly visiting nearby Dubai and Bahrain where they could go to public cinemas freely. As citizens tried to circumvent some of these restrictions, the Saudi government lessened their regulations, but maintained some level of censorship. The government initially banned ownership of satellite television receivers in 1994. However, after an increasingly large percentage of the population bought satellite receivers and subscribed to various programming packages, the Saudi government grew more willing to tolerate satellite television as long as the programming content was not pornographic, critical of the Saudi government or Islam.
Instances of censorship continued mainly due to the content of broadcasts. In 2005, two episodes of American Dad!, Stan of Arabia: Part 1 and Part 2, were banned by the Saudi government. The English daily ArabNews published an article that accused the series, which had scenes regarding the intolerance of homosexuality and the ban of alcohol, of portraying Saudi Arabia in a negative light.
In 2008, disgruntled callers on a live show on Al-Ikhbariya news channel displayed discontent with the latest governmental salary increases and made critical remarks of some Saudi officials. Information Minister, Iyad Madani, then fired the network's director, Muhammad Al-Tunsi, and replaced him with one of his personal assistants. The minister also announced a temporary suspension of live broadcasts for all Saudi public TV channels.
In recent years, the country has moved towards lifting the restrictions on this form of media. In 2007, permission was granted to two hotels to screen American children's films, to celebrate the end of Ramadan. The following year, the first Saudi film festival took place. In December 2017, the Saudi government announced its decision to end the three decade ban on public cinemas, as part of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's campaign to introduce nationwide changes to help broaden and strengthen the economy.
By early 2018, the Ministry of Information began licensing the opening of movie houses, but noted that all movies were subject to existing media laws, stating that films would be "subjected to censorship based on the media policy of the kingdom.” For instance, a 40-second scene involving two characters kissing was removed from the first movie screened in public theaters, Black Panther.
Saudi Arabia directs all international Internet traffic through a proxy farm located in King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology. A content filter is implemented there, based on software by Secure Computing. Since October 2006, the Communications and Information Technology Commission (CITC) has been handling the DNS structure and filtering in Saudi Arabia in the place of KACST. Additionally, a number of sites are blocked according to two lists maintained by the Internet Services Unit (ISU): one containing "immoral" (mostly pornographic or supportive of LGBT-rights) sites and sites promoting Shia Ideology, the others based on directions from a security committee run by the Ministry of Information (including sites critical of the Saudi government). An interesting feature of this system is that citizens are encouraged to actively report "immoral", mostly adult and pornographic, sites for blocking using a provided web form, available on the government's website.
The initial legal basis for content filtering is the resolution by Council of Ministers dated 12 February 2001. According to a study carried out in 2004 by the Open Net Initiative "the most aggressive censorship focused on pornography, drug use, gambling, religious conversion of Muslims, and filtering circumvention tools." Additionally, Saudi Arabia blocks websites affiliated with Iran, with Hezbollah, with groups in Yemen, as well as websites associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. Saudi Arabia, like other countries, utilizes technology often from Western companies, such as American-owned SmartFilter, in order to automatically filter websites based on certain topic material. The government also monitors for unusual spikes in internet traffic related to content it wants to censor. An example of this filtering was seen after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, when the number of websites being censored in Saudi Arabia reportedly doubled, particularly websites of foreign news services such as Fox News and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. This is according to Censored Planet, an online initiative that aims to track online censorship through multiple methods, including scanning internet protocol (IP) addresses associated with particular websites.
In 2011, the Saudi government introduced new Internet rules and regulations that require all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a special license from the Ministry of Information. Liberal activists are monitored both on blogs and on social media. In a highly public 2012 case, a blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes and given a 10 year ban on media work or foreign travel.
On 11 July 2006 the Saudi government blocked access to Wikipedia and Google Translate, which was being used to bypass the filters on the blocked sites by translating them. Though Wikipedia is not blocked currently, specific pages on Wikipedia were reported to be censored by Saudi Arabia in 2011, such as one page discussing the theory of evolution. Encrypted connections denoted by "HTTPS" made censorship more difficult for these pages and today there is no evidence that individual pages are still being blocked.
YouTube is not blocked in the country. However, in 2014, Saudi Arabia made plans to regulate local companies producing content for YouTube. The General Authority for Audiovisual Media, a recently formed watchdog, issued a public declaration to regulate the work of YouTube channels. They planned to censor material that is "terrorist" in nature which according to the proposed rule will be any content that "disturbs public order, shakes the security of society, or subjects its national unity to danger, or obstructs the primary system of rule or harms the reputation of the state".
The Saudi government began blocking internet communications through online apps such as Skype and WhatsApp in 2013, due to fears that activists may use these platforms. As part of the country's economic reforms to boost businesses and diversify the economy, the government lifted the ban in 2017. However, the CITC confirmed that calls will still be monitored and censored, both on global and local apps.
Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are widely used in Saudi Arabia, with nearly 30 percent of Arab region Twitter users from Saudi. Twitter has become an important platform for expressing dissent. However, liberal citizens, and more recently conservatives, have been arrested and sometimes given punishments, such as prison time and fines, for criticizing the government on social media. The government has been reported to have a hand in utilizing bots and human "trolls" in order to minimize the work of its critics on Twitter. Saudi was also accused of infiltrating Twitter through a Saudi employee that joined the company in 2013 but was put on leave two years later after the potential plot was brought to the attention of Twitter.