The Saudi media has always been heavily censored and its journalists extremely careful about what they write. The 1982 royal decree on press and publications curbs freedom of expression very severely.
The information ministry’s censorship policy is tailored to different audiences. Inside the country, all criticism of the royal family or the religious authorities is forbidden. The main function of the Saudi Press Agency, directly controlled by the information ministry, is to indicate to the rest of the media the lines not to be crossed. In 2002, for example, clashes between police and armed "Afghan Saudis" were not mentioned in the press.
For the outside world, the authorities try to give a modern image of a country with leaders keen to fight combat terrorism while remaining the official guardians of the holy places of Islam.
Newspapers are privately-owned but their publishers and editors are appointed or must be approved of by the government. The powerful Higher Media Council is headed by interior minister Prince Nayef, who is the true master of the media.
Local television is deliberately under-equipped. Satellite receiver dishes are everywhere, though they are frowned on by the government. The most popular station in homes and ministries is the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, despite being disapproved of by the government.
At the beginning of the year, Crown Prince Abdullah, the country’s de facto ruler, lashed out at the station, accusing it of threatening the stability of the Arab World and discrediting the Gulf Cooperation Council, which he led in a campaign against the station resulting in the recall in June of the Saudi ambassador in Qatar.
The Internet is another source of information for Saudis, but since its belated arrival in the country in 1999, access has been restricted by the government’s Internet Services Unit. A survey by Harvard Law School said access to more than 2,000 websites was blocked, not just pornographic or ordinary film sites, but those to do with politics, health, women’s rights and education.
To get round this censorship, many Internet users go through satellite dishes, which are anyway quicker and cheaper than using official Internet service providers. In October, the authorities banned this method and threatened to punish offenders. Foreign journalists wanting to report on what is going on inside the country have great difficulty getting visas and the foreign press is systematically censored, with undesirable articles and pictures blacked out.
The spread of receiver dishes forced the authorities to allow the written press a little more freedom and articles began appearing in the Arabic-language press and the traditionally freer English-language papers about previously taboo subjects such as unemployment, corruption and the extravagance of rich Saudis when abroad.
In March, the media pushed this freedom to the limits by investigating the death of 15 girls in a fire at their school in the holy city of Mecca. Quoting witnesses, several papers denounced the reactionary nature of the religious police who reportedly forbade the unveiled girls from leaving the burning school. Readers hailed the efforts of local reporters to dig out the truth, but the information and interior ministries soon clamped down on the story.
Despite this return to censorship and self-censorship, it was a first victory for the Saudi press and forced the resignation of a top religious official and the education ministry to take over responsibility for the education of girls.
In December, the Voice of Al-Islah became the first radio station of a Saudi opposition group to broadcast in the Arabian Peninsula and elsewhere by satellite. The radio is close to the fundamentalist London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia (MIRA), founded in 1993.
A journalist imprisoned
Saleh al-Harith, of the newspaper Al-Yaum, was arrested in April 2000 in the southwestern Ismaelite town of Najran and is thought to be in the central prison of Dammam. He had phoned the TV station Al-Jazeera on 23 April 2000 to report the security forces attack on town’s Al-Mansura mosque, during which two people were killed. The journalist, an Ismaelite (a branch of the Shiites persecuted by the authorities), was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Pressure and obstruction
Interior minister Prince Nayef ordered the dismissal on 18 March 2002 of Mohamed al-Mokhtar al-Fal, editor of the privately-owned daily Al-Madina, after he printed a very critical poem about Islamic justice and corrupt judges by one of the country’s best-known poets, Abdul Mohsen Mossalam, who had been arrested on 16 March and imprisoned in Jeddah. Arab and Western human rights groups called for his release.
On 22 March, the authorities began censoring the Saudi-financed pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat before it went on sale in the country. Direct distribution had been authorised in 2001, along with that of another large pan-Arab daily, As-Sharq al-Awsat. The censorship was imposed the day after Al-Hayat’s bureau chief in Riyadh, Daud Shurayan, reprinted in an editorial remarks by information minister Fuad al-Farsi about censorship.
Airport authorities seized videotapes and a laptop computer on 21 April from reporter Bob Arnot, of the US cable TV station MSNBC. They gave no explanation and ignored the official permits he had. He had been reporting on delicate subjects in the country, such as anti-American feeling among Saudi schoolchildren.
Qinan al-Ghamdi, editor of the privately-owned daily Al-Watan, was demoted to editorial adviser on 7 May after publishing articles denouncing corruption among government members and the religious police. The journalist said he had resigned for "personal reasons." The paper, known for its blunt editorials and for tackling taboo subjects, had shortly before called for political and religious reforms.
Distribution of Al-Hayat was banned on 23 October for several days after printing a letter from a group of American intellectuals to their Saudi colleagues headed "Can we coexist?" The letter was responding to one in May from 153 Saudi intellectuals protesting that the US media was trying to smear Islam and Saudi Arabia.
Ahmed Mohamed Mahmud, publisher of Al-Madina, was forced to resign on 10 July for what were described as repeated violations of the press law by printing articles that displeased the authorities, such as one about the razing of a slum in Jeddah. Associates said he was also accused of allowing sacked former editor Mohamed al-Mokhtar al-Fal to write a weekly article in the paper. The paper’s editor, Mohamed Hosni Mahjub, was demoted to deputy editor.