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.
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.