Area: 2,149,690 sq.km.
Head of state: King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al-Saud
Saudi Arabia is one the world’s 10 harshest countries towards press freedom. Political reforms are slow in coming, obstructed by religious hardliners, the fight against Islamic terrorism and the Saudi royal family’s grip on power. The lifting of a few taboos in the media since the September 2001 attacks in the United States has brought a sliver of freedom.
Crown Prince Abdullah, the country’s effectively ruler in place of the ailing King Fahd, outlined in early 2004 the shape of future reforms. A few were begun in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States (most of the hijackers were Saudis) but they were dangerous for the Saudi royal family and were very timid.
However Prince Abdullah warned that the regime would not allow anyone to block them either through calls for stubbornness or recklessness. The first elections since the kingdom was founded in 1932 were due in 2004 but were postponed and only partial local elections scheduled in 2005. The government, rocked in recent years by Islamist violence, launched a ruthless campaign against terrorism. A journalist was killed for the first time in one of the attacks, which were mostly against oil installations.
Growing number of human rights violations
Human rights abuses increased in 2004, according to Amnesty International, due to the hunt for Islamist militants and also to attacks (some of them by Al-Qaeda supporters). At least 50 people, including 19 Saudis, are thought to have been summarily executed for murder, rape, blasphemy or armed robbery, which are capital offences under the country’s strict Islamic law. Several hundred others suspected of being government critics or supporters of the Shiite minority were arrested.
A rights organisation, the National Human Rights Association, was authorised for the first time in the country’s history on 8 March. It was chaired "in a personal capacity" by a member of the king’s Majlis al-Shura (advisory council) and comprised 41 men and women who were limited to making requests to the government without contravening national laws or the Islamic Sharia law.
Its goal was mainly to combat discrimination against women. Journalist Nura al-Jomaih, an Association member who lived 10 years in Western countries, said it would start with practical demands such as the right of women to drive. It has made no attempt to criticise the lack of other freedoms.
A dozen pro-reform intellectuals were arrested in March for criticising in the press the abuse of power by religious figures and signing a petition in late 2003 calling for a constitutional monarchy. Some were ill-treated and then freed after agreeing in writing to stop campaigning for reforms. Visiting US secretary of state Colin Powell expressed concern to Prince Abdallah about the lack of free expression in the country.
Where censorship rules
The Saudi media has always been tightly controlled, helped by a strong self-censorship. Interior minister Prince Nayef heads "a state within a state" as boss of the Higher Media Council and keeps an iron grip on all news. A dozen privately-owned daily papers and several magazines operate but setting them up requires a royal decree and their publishers and editors must be approved by the government.
The official Saudi Press Agency, directly controlled by the culture and information ministry, indicates to other media what topics are not to be mentioned. The regime seized all copies of the daily Al Watan on 2 May and replaced the issue with a new one that did not mention the mutilation of the corpse of a US citizen killed the previous day in the northwestern town of Yanbu or the execution of five Western engineers by armed men who burst into an oil plant.
Satellite receiver dishes are officially frowned on but very many people have them and watch other stations rather than the three controlled by the culture and information ministry. In a bid to counter the foreign stations, the government launched an all-news satellite channel, Al-Ikhbarya, in January and, in a first for the country, a woman, Buthaina Al-Nasr, read the first news bulletin.
Several women have senior posts among the 45 Saudi journalists posted abroad and the 95 working inside the country. This should have happened "long ago," one of them said, asking not to be named. "I appear on the screen in hijab [Islamic dress] just like in the street. We’re in the 21st century. I’m doing my national duty. It’s my country and there’s nothing wrong with that."
Political scientist Dawood al-Shirian says the regime knows that few people watch the government TV stations, especially for the news programmes, which are "very long and not very professional or impartial." He said he doubted Al-Ikhbariya would be much different.
As with Al-Arabiya, which was launched in February 2003, a month before the US invasion of Iraq, Al-Ikhbarya is meant to rival the Qatar-based pan-Arab station Al-Jazeera, which has been accused of insulting the royal family, has no reporters in Saudi Arabia and was even barred in 2003 from covering the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and several ministerial meetings of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Getting an entry visa to work as a journalist is a very long and difficult process. Once in the country, journalists must have a "minder" at all times. Foreign newspapers and magazines are censored before they go on sale and critical or "illegal" articles or photos are either cut or blacked out.
The regime has spent a lot of money on technology to block access to Internet websites considered undesirable, including religious, pornographic and news sites.
A cameraman killed and a reporter badly wounded
Irish cameraman Simon Cumbers, 36, was killed and British reporter Frank Gardner, 42, an expert in security matters and Al-Qaeda, was seriously wounded in an attack by suspected Islamist militants in Riyadh on 6 June as they were working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
A Western diplomat said the journalists had gone with their minder to the information ministry in the Al-Suweidi neighbourhood, a hotbed of extremists. The attack was in a street near the home of Ibrahim al-Raies, an extremist thought to have been killed by security forces in December 2003. The BBC team had gone to Saudi Arabia after an attack in the eastern oil town of Khobar blamed on Al-Qaeda supporters that had killed 22 people, including 19 Westerners.
1 journalist was killed
and 2 media outlets censored