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Maintaining the al-Saud royal family at the head of the state and upholding the supremacy of Wahhabi ideology is achieved by relentless control over news and information. The struggle against terrorism and regional political unrest are still used as a pretext to restrict basic freedoms.
Tentative reforms introduced in 2005, immediately after King Abdallah Ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud came to the throne, were accompanied by a relative slackening in media censorship. However pressure on the kingdom’s journalists is still at a very high level and the tug of self-censorship particularly strong. Even though the publications law allows for imprisonment of journalists it is rare for any of them to end up behind bars. Although a journalists’ union has been in existence since 2003, several of them have been forced out of jobs after writing articles seen as overly critical of the government. Since the kingdom has no written criminal code, the security forces and courts rely on vague and somewhat elastic concepts of criminal legislation.
Moreover any easing of censorship is more often the result of clashes at the highest political level between reformists and conservatives with their different social agendas than of any struggle for greater freedom on the part of Saudi journalists. Foreign journalists visiting the country are systematically accompanied by official minders who report on the content of their work.
The year 2009 was marked by the closure of the premises of Lebanese satellite channel LBC after it put out a programme seen as “conflicting with morality”. A woman journalist working for the channel was sentenced to 60 lashes before being pardoned by the king.
Access to news online has made the job of censors more difficult. The authorities in March 2007 set up a special government commission to filter the Internet to “protect Saudi society” from “terrorism”, “fraud”, “pornography“, “defamation” or “violation of religious values”. More than 400,000 websites were officially blocked as a result. Bloggers voicing any criticism are immediately accused of offending morality – a highly dissuasive policy in a country that arrests the authors of “offensive content or violating the principles of the Islamic religion and social norms”. Within this framework, steps were taken at the start of 2008 to make providers or distributors of computer equipment liable under the law for any breach of these rules. This means that a cybercafé manager can be sent to jail for any article posted on its premises violating these “moral values”.
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