Reporters Without Borders condemns the new regulations for news and information websites that culture and information minister Abdul Aziz Khoja announced on 1 January. They reinforce the government’s already draconian efforts to censor the Internet, which has nonetheless continued to be an unprecedented space for expression in Saudi Arabia.
According article 7 of the regulations, online media, the websites of traditional media and sites offering audio and video content or advertising will now have to apply to the culture and information ministry for a licence that will have to be renewed every three years. An applicant will have to be a Saudi national, aged at least 20, have a high school qualification and will have to be able to produce “documents testifying to good conduct.”
These provisions are very repressive. They subject online publications to government approval and are clearly discriminatory. The age limit and high school diploma requirement will deprive many young people of their right to free expression, while foreigners are barred by the nationality requirement.
All these online media will also have to identify the company that hosts them. This will allow the government to force the hosting company to suppress the site or its content and thereby render it inaccessible throughout the world.
Online forums, blogs, personal websites, distribution lists, electronic archives and chat sites will henceforth have to be registered. Bloggers will able to identify themselves “if they want,” but anonymity is clearly regarded as undesirable.
According to the regulations, the ministry would also have to approve the editor of each online newspaper, who will be the guarantor of the site’s entire content. It is not specified whether the editor would also be held responsible for the comments posted by readers. After an outcry about this provision, the minister yesterday promised to modify it. The ministry will now just have to be notified of the editor’s name. Its approval will not be required.
According to article 17, any violation of these provisions will be punishable by a fine or by the website’s partial or complete blocking, which could be temporary or permanent. The fines could be as high as 100,000 riyals (20,000 euros), which constitutes a veiled form of economic censorship as many sites would be unable to pay. The ministry reserves the right to extend the applicability of the regulations.
Under a law on technology use that took effect in January 2008, operating a website that supports terrorism is punishable by up to 10 years in prison while distributing pornographic content is punishable by up to five years in prison. The same law also provides for jail sentences for Internet café owners who allow their computers to be used to distribute content that violates “the Kingdom’s values.”
Saudi Arabia is one of the 10 countries that Reporters Without Borders has identified as “Enemies of the Internet”. Online censorship is ubiquitous. The authorities say they are blocking hundreds of thousands of websites. The latest sites to be blocked include Elaph (www.elpah.com) and the pages about Saudi Arabia on the Arabic-language version of WikiLeaks.
An online political news magazine, Elaph recently ran a story about the impact in political circles of the release by WikiLeaks of US diplomatic cables revealing that Saudi officials had urged the United States to attack Iran’s nuclear reactors.