MUSLIM HATE OF THE PRESS!
A Yemeni editor’s decision to reprint cartoons of Muhammad sparks government reprisals.
When Yemen Observer Editor Mohammed
al-Asaadi gathered his editors February 1 for their regular meeting to pick the
top story for the next edition, the choice seemed clear. Thousands of
Palestinians were demonstrating in Gaza, a retail boycott of Danish goods was
gaining momentum, and Saudi Arabia and Syria had just withdrawn their
ambassadors to Denmark. The issue that sparked the discontent—a Danish
newspaper’s publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad—had become
the talk of the world.
The English-language weekly decided to reprint three of the drawings, in black and white and reduced size, with large X’s overlaid on each, as part of multiple-page coverage of the controversy. The editors wanted to denounce the cartoons, explain to the mainly foreign readership of the Yemen Observer why they elicited outrage among Muslims, and to show readers exactly what was under protest. The decision to reprint a small selection was unanimous among the editors, some of whom objected only to obscuring the drawings with X’s. Al-Asaadi, described by colleagues as a devout Muslim, insisted on the markings to make clear the paper’s view that they were inappropriate.
The February 3 issue included a front-page news story, along with commentary and sidebars on three inside pages. The Observer’s main editorial decried the drawings as an insult to Islam. The obscured cartoons ran on page 11, next to a photo of people boycotting Danish goods. The issue was distributed widely, and for three days there was no adverse reaction. Then al-Asaadi received a phone call informing him that the Ministry of Information had suspended his paper’s license to publish. “A friend of mine called from Rome and told me Reuters reported that our license was suspended,” al-Asaadi said in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists. “I had no idea because the Ministry of Information did not tell me the paper was closed.”
But closed it was, he soon learned, as it remained for three months. The prosecutor for press and publications in Sana’a summoned al-Asaadi and Faris Abdullah Sanabani, the paper’s publisher and a media advisor to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, for questioning on February 11. Sanabani was relieved of responsibility, but al-Asaadi was detained for printing materials deemed offensive to the Prophet. The prosecutor told al-Asaadi’s lawyer that the journalist was being held for his own protection.
Al-Asaadi spent the next 12 days in a poorly ventilated basement cell, along with a dozen or so other detainees. At night he found it difficult to breathe amid clouds of cigarette smoke. Having never spent a day in prison before, the experience shocked him; he kept a daily journal as a means of coping.
The attorney general later charged al-Asaadi with insulting the Prophet under both the penal code and the press law and released him on bail. At least 14 private lawyers recruited by Sheik Abdul-Majid Zindani, chairman of Islah Shura Council, filed complaints against al-Asaadi and called, at least indirectly, for his execution. Yemeni law permits private individuals to take a criminal case to court if they believe their civil rights have been infringed. Al-Asaadi faces severe jail time and a possible death sentence for his editorial decision.
The controversy began last September when the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 caricatures of Muhammad, one of them depicting the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse. The publication caused anger in the Muslim world, where many consider depictions of Muhammad to be blasphemous. The cartoons gained greater attention after they were reprinted in the January 10 edition of Magazinet, a small Christian evangelical weekly based in Norway, and then republished by publications across Europe and the World Wide Web. By February, protests, some of them violent, were reported in several cities.
Throughout the Muslim world, a number of publications printed versions of one or more of the cartoons for various reasons: to denounce them, to mobilize protests against them, or to appeal against the violence they spurred. Many of the publications were targeted as a result, becoming easy prey for governments seeking a pretext to retaliate against the press, curry favor with Islamists, and deflect public attention from domestic problems.
Worldwide, the Committee to Protect Journalists found that at least nine publications were closed or suspended and 10 journalists were criminally charged. Punitive actions, including censorship orders and harassment, were reported in 13 countries, CPJ found.
In Syria, merely commenting on the cartoons drew government retaliation. Adel Mahfouz was charged by the Damascus prosecutor’s office after writing an article on the news Web site Rezgar advocating peaceful dialogue as a means of protesting the cartoons. Mahfouz was charged with insulting public religious sentiment under the penal code. If convicted, he faces up to three years imprisonment.
The Syrian government was eager to exploit the debate for internal political gain, said Bernard Haykel, associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University.
“It is a minority Alawite regime that needs to burnish its Islamic credentials and therefore would have used the occasion of the caricatures to do just that,” Haykel said. The case, he said, also distracted attention from major challenges facing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, notably its withdrawal from Lebanon and alleged links to the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
Yet nowhere was retaliation as severe as in Yemen, where the government sought to make censorship a popular cause. Muhammad Shaher Hussein, the deputy information minister, said his agency wanted to ease public tensions when it suspended the Observer and two other publications—the private weekly Al-Hurriya Ahliya, and the Arabic-language Al-Rai Al-Aam—for reprinting the cartoons. The suspensions appeared to contravene Yemen’s own press law, which states that only a court has jurisdiction to suspend or revoke a publication’s license. Prime Minister Abdelqader Bajammal finally lifted the bans on May 2.
“They can get away with breaking their own law because they appear to be responding to public demand,” said Sheila Carapico, a professor of political science and international studies at the University of Richmond. The Danish caricatures are “something on which the public and government can pretty much agree,” Carapico said. “It’s a distant enemy, an amorphous enemy, it’s not something they can really do anything about—and so it has all the advantages of symbolic politics that are really policy neutral.”
emeni authorities filed criminal charges against three other journalists: Abdulkarim Sabra, managing editor and publisher of Al-Hurriya; Yehiya al-Abed, a journalist for Al-Hurriya; and Kamal al-Aalafi, editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language Al-Rai Al-Aam. They were charged with violating Article 103 of the Press and Publications Law of 1990, which prohibits “printing, publishing, circulating, or broadcasting ... anything which prejudices the Islamic faith and its lofty principles or belittles religions or humanitarian creeds.” They also face penal code charges.
“The government sees us becoming more independent and increasingly writing about sensitive issues against the government’s interests,” al-Asaadi said. His newspaper, while often sympathetic to the president, has also reported on alleged corruption in the Yemeni foreign service. “The message to the Yemeni press,” al-Asaadi said, “is that the government can mimic these circumstances and carry out the same sort of measures when the press does something they don’t like.”
But the press itself played into the hands of governments through sensational and superficial coverage, al- Asaadi and other journalists told CPJ. “We are responsible for what’s happening to us. We played a role,” said al-Asaadi, who cited his own case as an example. “During my initial arrest, the Yemeni press didn’t provide further information or try to clarify the context, reporting simply that I had published the cartoons.”
During al-Asaadi’s first hearing in the General South-West Court in Sana’a on March 8, prosecution lawyers seemed to call for al-Asaadi’s execution by recounting a story in which Muhammad praised a companion for killing a woman who had insulted him.
The prosecution team stated further demands in a second hearing on March 22. “When the Yemen Observer published the pictures they were aware of the anger caused by them,” according to a statement read in court by the prosecution. “We demand the punishment of its editor-in-chief, the permanent closure of the paper, and for Mohammed al-Asaadi to be banned from writing for newspapers forever.” The prosecution team also seeks financial compensation—for itself—because of the psychological trauma the Yemen Observer allegedly caused, according to the statement.
Mohammed Naji Allaw, a lawyer with the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, is helping defend al-Asaadi. “The intention of the Yemen Observer was to criticize the Danish press,” Allaw told CPJ. “He did not intend to insult the prophet; he did not intend to republish the cartoons in their support. ... Al-Asaadi was defending the prophet, and he should be found innocent.”
Context is at the root of the case: The defense wants the cartoons to be judged as part of the Observer’s full coverage, including the accompanying text and the placement of the drawings. The attorney general and prosecution team have argued that al-Asaadi should be judged on the published drawings alone.
eyond the legal battles, al-Asaadi fears for his life because of the nature of the charges. Lengthy intervals between court dates increase the risk, as accusations linger without resolution. Some members of Parliament chimed in to demand severe punishment, apparently believing that the Observer printed all of the drawings in their original form.
“When we clarified to members of Parliament they withdrew their position and cooperated with us. Religious scholars sympathized with us after we explained our position,” al-Asaadi said. “But there was a campaign of provocation in the beginning, forcing one to worry about his life.”
Likewise, al-Asaadi worries about the 35 employees at the Yemen Observer. “I actually feel depressed and kind of frustrated from the situation,” al-Asaadi told CPJ. “The suspension of the paper, no work, fears of any silly behavior from fanatics, the uncertain end of the ordeal—it has had a negative impact on my family.”
Sanabani, the publisher, said the Observer maintained an Internet presence throughout the suspension, but it lost considerable money during the three months that the print version was banned. The Observer, a nine-year-old publication, sold 8,000 copies before the suspension, primarily to foreign diplomats, business people, and officials with non-governmental organizations.
“The Ministry of Information could have judged us without revoking the license; they could have allowed the paper to continue under a new editor-in-chief, and the case could have gone before the courts,” al-Asaadi said. “But the decision to stop and withdraw the license served as proof to the public that we had in fact committed a crime.”
Al-Asaadi believes the judge will not order his execution or even imprisonment once attorneys present his defense. Still, the ordeal has left him broken. “I chose this profession out of passion and belief to contribute in bringing about a change for the best of this society,” al-Asaadi said. “After years of dedication, I am facing death threats in all corners of the streets for nothing but practicing my job and calling for understanding. I have to explain to every individual that I am innocent.”
Worldwide, Arrests and Shutdowns
Here is a rundown of reprisals worldwide in
the cartoon controversy. Except where noted, the actions came in response to
publishing versions of one or more of the cartoons.
• Countries where reprisals were reported: 13
• Journalists criminally charged: 10
• Newspapers suspended or closed: 9
• Assault, harassment cases: 3
• Censorship orders: 2
Algeria: Two editors criminally charged.
Belarus: One newspaper suspended.
Denmark: Jyllands-Posten threatened with bomb attack.
India: One editor criminally charged.
Jordan: Two editors criminally charged.
Lebanon: Journalists assaulted during demonstration against cartoons.
Malaysia: Two newspapers suspended.
Morocco: Government organizes demonstrations against newspaper.
Russia: Two newspapers closed.
Saudi Arabia: Newspaper suspended.
South Africa: Censorship orders issued against two newspapers.
Syria: Writer criminally charged for commentary.
Yemen: Three newspapers suspended. Four journalists criminally charged.
Ivan Karakashian is research associate for CPJ's North Africa and Middle East program.
Princes, Clerics and Censors
Saudi Arabia loosens press shackles,
but religion and politics are still perilous topics
By Joel Campagna
Posted May 9, 2006
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia
Ahmed Faheed, a 33-year-old newspaper editor, wears faded jeans, a wrinkled T-shirt, and an ever-ringing cell phone. But more than his gear is out of place in a downtown cafe in Saudi Arabia’s austere capital city. Tucked under his arm are issues of his tabloid daily Shams, where splashed across the front page is an eye-catching color photo of a young, unveiled woman proudly showing off a tongue ring. The accompanying story warns of the health risks for Saudi youths who get their bodies pierced secretly and without professional supervision.
Since its launch in mid-2005, the paper has pushed the boundaries of social and cultural news coverage in the Arab world’s most religiously conservative society. Owned in part by Prince Turki bin Khaled, Shams has targeted Saudi Arabia’s 18-32 demographic and, despite a modest daily circulation of 40,000, the newspaper has been a hit. “We actually like Shams,” said the country’s information minister, Iyad Madani. “It was the only one that woke up to the notion that we have a young population.”
Shams also woke up the country’s hard-line religious conservatives and, by February, it had apparently gone too far. The government temporarily shut the newspaper after it reproduced one of the controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that caused outrage across the Muslim world since first appearing in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten. Madani told CPJ that he suspended the paper for two weeks for violating sacred religious strictures.
Faheed tells a more complicated story. Shams, he said, decided to run the cartoons only after the country’s highest religious authority, Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, declared it permissible if the intent was to highlight the offense against Islam. Faheed pointed out that it wasn’t until 20 days after the cartoons ran in Shams that the Information Ministry, whose own censors had cleared the issue for distribution, moved to halt publication of the paper.
What happened in the three weeks between the time the paper hit the newsstands and its closure illustrates the backdoor politicking that often dictates what can and cannot be said in the Saudi press. According to Faheed, whose account was verified by other sources, hard-line clerics and religious figures protested Shams’ liberal approach and urged authorities to take action. A compromise worked out through the Information Ministry allowed the paper to reopen if it dismissed its 32-year-old editor-in-chief, Batal al-Qaws. He was fired in late February.
Such are the opaque and sometimes contradictory forces that obstruct press freedom in Saudi Arabia. Today, Saudi papers publish news and opinions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, even as government and religious officials employ an array of behind-the-scenes controls to curtail enterprising coverage that offends the government or important religious constituencies.
Following the seismic events of September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States, and May 12, 2003, when suicide bombers struck Riyadh and killed more than two dozen people, the country’s bottled-up media demonstrated periods of boldness and addressed once-taboo topics such as crime, unemployment, women’s rights—and, most significant, religious militancy. Today, Saudi columnists publish probing articles about religious extremists’ use of summer camps to indoctrinate Saudi youth, while commentators argue that women should have the right to drive cars. The government has allowed at least one new daily publication to appear on newsstands, and newly licensed dailies are said to be on the way. Applications for visas and long-term accreditation for foreign journalists, once exercises in futility, are being granted to international news organizations.
But progress has been uneven and limited, and the margin of freedom is one that “is given and taken away,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a liberal academic whose columns for the Saudi-owned daily Al-Hayat of London were abruptly banned by the government after he questioned official reform efforts. Independent writers point to a web of formal and informal restrictions that prevent them from covering central social and political issues of the day.
Three forces are at work in suppressing news coverage, an investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists has found.
• Government officials dismiss editors, suspend or blacklist dissident writers, order news blackouts on controversial topics, and admonish independent columnists over their writings to deter undesirable criticism or to appease religious constituencies.
• The country’s conservative religious establishment acts as a powerful lobbying force against enterprising coverage of social, cultural, and religious matters. The multilayered religious sector includes official clerics, religious scholars, the religious police, radical revivalist preachers, and their followers.
• Compliant government-approved editors squelch controversial news, acquiesce to official pressures to tone down coverage, and silence critical voices.
Independent reporting on politics remains nearly absent from the Saudi press, CPJ’s analysis found. While newspapers occasionally criticize the performance of low-level government ministries or public institutions, critical coverage of the royal family, friendly foreign governments, rampant corruption, regional divisions, and oil revenue allocations remain off-limits. Debate over major foreign policy positions and the concerns of the country’s disenfranchised Shiite minority are also considered banned topics.
The fiercest press freedom battles, however, are being fought over coverage of religious issues. The most enterprising Saudi journalists have sought to challenge what they see as the monopolization of Saudi society by hard-line members of the religious establishment who promote extreme positions. Their coverage remains heavily circumscribed because of enormous pressure brought by religious clerics, preachers, activists, and their allies in the government.
At the heart of this tension is the generations-old alliance between the ruling Al-Saud family and followers of the 18th-century cleric Muhammad Ibn Abdel Wahab, whose strict teachings form the basis of the country’s official Wahhabi doctrine. The modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia, founded in 1932, continues a political bargain forged centuries ago: The Al-Saud wield political power, guarantee security, and uphold the country’s Islamic character while the Wahhabi clergy provide spiritual authority and lend legitimacy to the Al-Saud’s rule. In practice, this give-and-take has meant ever-shifting margins of freedom for the press. Even when the government is inclined to allow greater press criticism, it has been quick to accommodate the concerns of religious constituencies.
So today Saudis take their frankest discussions about religion and politics to non-Saudi publications or other venues. The candid debates that Saudis have in their homes, in discussion groups known as diwaniyas, in coffee shops, on satellite television, or on the Internet are far better indicators of the nation’s discourse than what is typically found in mainstream newspapers.
In compiling this report, CPJ interviewed more than 80 reporters, writers, editors, and intellectuals in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dhahran, Dammam, and Qatif and met with officials from the information and interior ministries during two fact-finding missions, in July 2005 and in February of this year. Many reform-minded Saudi journalists believe far more can be done to reflect frank discourse and diverse voices in the national media. They argue that press reforms are in the country’s long-term interest—as a way to confront serious domestic issues such as poverty and corruption and as a means to marginalize violent religious extremism.
Although newspapers are privately owned, the state exerts tremendous influence over what is reported. The government approves the appointments of editors-in-chief, a process that journalists say is done behind closed doors with the oversight of Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the powerful interior minister. In practice, though not by law, newspapers require the financial or political backing of a member of the royal family. Unlike in other parts of the region, “opposition journalism” simply doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia. While some columnists have criticized low-level ministers, news coverage is typically devoid of anything reflecting negatively on the royal family, high-ranking officials, and the country’s religious clerics and institutions.
Top editors and most journalists view themselves as defenders of the ruling Al-Saud family, and government officials ensure allegiance by applying behind-the-scenes pressure—issuing directions on sensitive stories, banning coverage of certain topics, and taking punitive actions against journalists. Over the past decade, CPJ research shows, dozens of editors, writers, academics, and other media critics have been suspended, dismissed from their jobs, or banned from appearing in the Saudi press. The actions came by government order, the intervention of religious leaders, or at the initiative of editors. Other journalists have faced detention, questioning by security authorities, and travel bans.
Despite the daunting restrictions, Saudi Arabia’s media environment has markedly improved since the 1990s. Citing the influence of satellite television and the Internet, journalists say the media have undergone a gradual liberalization since the 1990-91 Gulf War, when the Saudi press notoriously failed to report Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. But the most significant changes occurred after September 11, 2001. Responding to international critics who linked Saudi terrorism to the lack of basic liberties in the kingdom, the government loosened the shackles on the domestic press, and newspapers began to address social problems and religious extremism.
Another watershed came in March 2002, when a fire broke out at a girls’ school in the holy city of Mecca, killing 15 students. When allegations surfaced that the feared religious police, or mutawaeen, had slowed rescue operations because girls inside the burning building were not wearing the requisite black body covering, newspapers made an unprecedented show of defiance. The mutawaeen, who use the formal title of the Committee for Propagating Virtue and Preventing Vice, were said to be “preventing life and propagating death” in the daily Okaz. The leading daily Al-Riyadh commented that the fire reflected prejudicial attitudes toward women. The government eventually removed the cleric in charge of girls’ education and transferred oversight to the Education Ministry.
At about the same time, other writers were testing the limits of what could be published. The poet Abdel Mohsen Mosallam stunned colleagues when he wrote a verse for the daily Al-Madina that accused the country’s cleric-controlled judiciary of corruption. "Your beards are smeared with blood. You indulge a thousand tyrants and only the tyrant do you obey,” the poem read in part. It accused judges of caring “for nothing but their bank accounts and their status with the rulers."
The coverage proved too much for authorities and, in the ensuing weeks, newspapers were told to drop the Mecca blaze story. Mosallam’s editor was dismissed, reportedly at the order of the interior minister; Mosallam himself was detained and banned from writing in the Saudi press. Other editors were sacked in the following months, including Qenan al-Ghamdi, the brash editor-in-chief of the daily Al-Watan, who was dismissed after a report described poor living conditions for Interior Ministry soldiers deployed to Mecca for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
Critical news coverage rebounded a year later when suicide bombers struck several western installations in Riyadh on May 12, 2003, killing more than two dozen people and pointing to an internal terrorist threat. The incident triggered an unprecedented debate in newspapers about the roots of extremism.
Al-Watan columnist Adel al-Toraifi witnessed the change overnight. A day before the bombings, al-Toraifi’s editor had spiked a prescient column warning of the threat from religious fanatics who operate openly in the kingdom. Headlined “To Prevent a Saudi Manhattan,” it discussed the looming terrorist threat in Saudi Arabia and said that religious sheikhs were inflaming tensions and promoting extreme interpretations of Islam. The article ended up running prominently on Al-Watan’s opinion page two days after the bombings. “My editor knew it could be published and that I would not be punished for it,” al-Toraifi said.
In the following months, al-Toraifi and other Saudi writers served up daring columns on extremism that obliquely criticized the government for tolerating Islamist fanatics. Newspapers examined how extremists exploited the education system to indoctrinate youths. Commentators scrutinized Wahhabi restrictions on women and what they called hard-liners’ intolerance of other religions’ beliefs.
“It grew to the point where I wrote that the religious establishment continues to be an obstacle to the war on terrorism,” al-Toraifi said.
The boldest commentary appeared in Al-Watan, at the time a relatively new paper partly owned by liberal Saudi Prince Bandar bin Khaled. “Those who committed yesterday’s crime, which will have a painful impact on the peaceful nature of our nation, are not only the suicide terrorists, but also everyone who instigated or justified the attacks ... even everyone who kept silent on this direction, which is deviating from our religion and nature,” the newspaper’s newly appointed editor-in-chief, Jamal Khashoggi, wrote the day after the bombings. Al-Watan also published provocative cartoons depicting Saudi clerics condoning terrorist acts. Its most explosive column, appearing just days after the May bombings, traced the violence to 14th-century Muslim cleric Ibn Taymiyya, whose puritanical teachings provide a foundation for the Wahhabi doctrine. The column said extremists had used the teachings to justify violent attacks.
The expanding freedom was again short-lived, and some editors and writers were sacked under government pressure. Al-Watan’s Khashoggi was the most notable casualty; he was forced to step down on the order of then-Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz. Interior Minster Nayef rebuked editors for articles criticizing Wahhabism, and, over the course of several months, government agents warned editors and writers to steer clear of religious taboos, the religious establishment, and reforms being discussed by intellectuals. The arrest in March 2004 of three prominent political reformers further dampened the zeal of journalists to challenge the status quo.
Coverage gradually receded and the press has yet to recover, leaving many liberal writers disillusioned and dubious of the government’s commitment to media reform. Some journalists believe that the government, threatened by al-Qaeda after May 2003, used the press to weaken hard-line religious elements during this period—only to retighten controls once it gained the upper hand against terrorists.
Hussein Shobokshi, a former columnist for the daily Okaz, imagines a country where the government is accountable to the public, citizens can vote in elections, and women can drive cars. When Shobokshi put these visions into a July 2003 column, he triggered a huge public response that included complaints from what he called “tribal and religious groups.” He was quickly blacklisted from the Saudi press for the next year and his newly launched talk show on the Saudi-owned satellite broadcaster Al-Arabiya was cancelled. His editor told Shobokshi that he was banned, but the editor didn’t say why or by whom.
“The ban was so ugly I could not write anywhere,” Shobokshi said in an interview in the Saudi Red Sea port of Jeddah. “It taught me how things are run in this country.” The case is emblematic of the behind-the-scenes pressures facing outspoken Saudi journalists. Shobokshi’s ban was never announced, and there was no documentation that the journalist ever saw. Although many bans are imposed by fax from the Ministry of Information, journalists said, others are handled with simple phone calls from religious or political officials.
In meetings with CPJ in February, Information Minister Madani and his deputy, Saleh Namlah, acknowledged the government’s practice of banning writers. Madani confirmed at least one existing ban, on the poet Mosallam, but did not provide details. Namlah said bans are imposed when citizens complain to the king or high-ranking officials, and that such actions are intended to preserve the country’s traditional, conservative society.
“My main intent and concern is for journalists not to upset the conservative fabric,” Namlah said. “If children fight with each other, you say go to your room. To the writer you say please do not write. It’s a way of calming things.” Namlah said he was not aware of any journalist who was permanently banned.
It’s been almost three years, though, since Wajeha al-Howeidar has written for a Saudi newspaper. Al-Howeidar, a former teacher who develops education curricula at Saudi Arabia’s state-run oil company Saudi Aramco, began writing opinion pieces several years ago, but in 2003 Saudi newspapers abruptly stopped publishing her articles. “I learned while I was on vacation. Friends said, ‘We heard you were banned,’” al-Howeidar recalled during an interview at Aramco’s sprawling complex in Dhahran, in the country’s oil-rich eastern province. Al-Howeider said editors at Al-Watan and Arab News told her they received faxes from the Information Ministry instructing them to stop publishing her work.
Al-Howeidar had tackled women’s rights, sex discrimination in Saudi society, and social ills, topics that likely offended traditional sensibilities. The ban was triggered, though, by a May 2003 piece that described the case of an abused Saudi teen who took photos of his bruises with the intention of eventually suing his father. His father had gone unpunished, she wrote.
“When someone decides this person should stop writing, they don’t inform them,” she said. “I always heard [about the ban] from other people and the Ministry of Information acted as if they didn’t know about it.” The Information Ministry, according to al-Howeidar, approached her last summer and offered to lift the ban if she traveled abroad as a goodwill ambassador and spoke about advances in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. She refused. When asked about al-Howeidar’s case, Madani and Namlah said they understood that it was al-Howeidar’s decision to stop writing. Madani said no deal was offered to the writer.
Over the years, dozens of writers have been subjected to bans ranging from a few days to indefinite periods. Saudi theologian Hassan Malaki, for example, has been permanently blacklisted for questioning Wahhabism.
Bans are just one method of control. Authorities also provide guidelines to editors on how to cover sensitive stories, when to impose news blackouts, and what to censor. In November, the government ordered editors not to cover the case of Muhammad al-Harbi, a high school chemistry teacher from Qassim who was viciously harassed by Islamist colleagues who objected to his encouragement of critical religious interpretation. Al-Harbi, targeted with blasphemy charges, was sentenced to 40 months in prison and 750 lashes before being pardoned by King Abdullah. Madani acknowledged halting the coverage to avoid creating “divisions” in Saudi society.
As often as not, journalists said, the Information Ministry acts at the behest of more powerful political and religious figures. They said the Interior Ministry is the leading force in restricting the press, even though the agency’s spokesman, Lt. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, said it had no official role. “It is not the Ministry of Interior who makes a decision to ban a journalist,” he told CPJ in Riyadh. But the ministry is seen as allied with hard-line religious forces and is widely believed to be behind many bans on journalists. Its security forces, known as the mubahith, monitor press coverage and keep tabs on writers in every major city, journalists said. The Interior Ministry has been particularly active over the past three years, with agents persuading a number of journalists to sign confidential ta’ahuds, or written pledges, to refrain from certain criticisms or from writing at all, several journalists told CPJ.
Mansour al-Nogaidan, a 35-year-old former religious extremist-turned-critic who writes for Al-Riyadh, said he was summoned to a five-star hotel in Riyadh for questioning by intelligence agents after he wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times. The November 2003 article stated that the country was “bogged down by deep-rooted Islamic extremism in most schools and mosques, which have become breeding grounds for terrorists,” and that terrorism will persist “as long as it is endemic to our educational and religious institutions.” Agents phoned him within days with the terse message that his writings had “offended the state.” He was detained for five days by the mubahith, and editors at Al-Riyadh wouldn’t publish his columns for several months.
The relationship between the Al-Saud and the country’s clergy is built on trade-offs and political balancing. But over the last three decades, Saudi authorities have ceded increasing influence to the religious establishment as a way to placate hard-line Islamists. Today, the most daring Saudi journalism is not about politics or the royal family but about the growing strength of conservative Wahhabi practices, which commentators say repress women, breed religious intolerance, and encourage terrorism.
CPJ research shows that conservative clerics and Islamist activists have countered such criticism by relentlessly attacking the media in sermons and on the Internet, and by persistently pressuring news managers. When press coverage strays too far, they are aggressive in pressuring editors or enlisting the government to crack down.
As one cleric sees it, the press is pushing unwelcome views on Saudi society and should not be allowed to cross well-defined legal and religious lines. “Liberal journalists in this country are spreading the illusion that they are persecuted,” prominent cleric Saad al-Buraik told CPJ. Some newspapers are exerting “a kind of tyranny” of their own, he said, by promoting views at odds with the constitution, the Quran, and Islamic customs.
“Everybody needs to keep in mind that there is a line between what the constitution and the religious authorities say on one hand, and issues subject to rational debate on the other,” al-Buraik said. “This line should not be crossed."
Journalists point to excesses by hard-liners intent on guarding such lines. During a book fair in Riyadh in February, Islamists disrupted a panel on censorship that included leading pro-government editor Turki al-Sudeiri, whose newspaper Al-Riyadh has published critiques of religious extremists. Also on the panel were former Information Minister Muhammad Abdo Yamani, and other writers critical of religious hard-liners. Men from the audience shouted down the panelists, accused them of being un-Islamic, and urged that they be tried in religious courts for their liberal policies. The activists surrounded the panelists and roughed up at least one journalist.
“It’s like McCarthyism in the 1950s,” said Khashoggi, the former Al-Watan editor, likening the climate to the anti-communist campaign by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the blacklisting of U.S. writers.
Sultan al-Qahtani, a Riyadh-based editor for the popular, Saudi-owned news Web site Elaph, said Saudi religious clerics have denounced Elaph by name at Friday prayers, and religious conservatives have condemned him in e-mails. "We’re asking for more of an opening in society. We’re asking for women’s rights, a greater margin for freedom of the press. The religious people are trying to go back to centuries past,” he said. “And this angers them very much."
In December, Saudi Web censors blocked access to Elaph in the kingdom after the site printed (accidentally, according to Qahtani) an e-mailed comment that referred to sexual relations of the Prophet Muhammad. "But this was not the only reason they came after Elaph," Qahtani said. "Many of the religious men are raising complaints to the king and the Information Ministry about Elaph.”
In some cases, writers have received online death threats, most anonymous and posted on Islamist Web sites.
“I get phone calls, insults, and bad language,” said Hamzah Muzeini, a professor of linguistics at King Saud University who has gotten several death threats for his criticism of religious hard-liners. “They don’t attack issues; they attack you personally. This makes people think twice or three times before they write. They are so harsh and unprincipled and can use harsh language against you and your family.”
Muzeini’s writings infuriated extremists so much that in 2005 they initiated an extraordinary legal case against the journalist in an Islamic sharia court, which has no formal jurisdiction over press matters and where severe penalties include flogging. The suit was filed by an Islamist professor named Abdullah Barak, who accused Muzeini of defamation after the two exchanged a series of remarks in Saudi newspapers. The argument started when Muzeini wrote a piece in Al-Watan decrying the presence in Saudi universities of hard-line Islamists who ban music, dance, and the teaching of female students by male professors.
Muzeini was eventually convicted and sentenced to 100 lashes and two months in prison. When he defiantly told the judge that his decision would never stand, the judge promptly doubled the sentence. Sources told CPJ that an incensed Abdullah, who had issued an earlier directive to halt the prosecution, nullified the verdict against Muzeini and quashed several other similar prosecutions.
Abdullah’s intervention was very important, journalists said, but the Saudi government doesn’t typically intercede on behalf of journalists against the religious establishment. While recognizing the government’s need to strike a balance between religious conservatives and liberals, journalists blamed the Interior Ministry and other officials for giving in to the protests of religious leaders too easily.
“The government caters to the desires of the religious establishment," says Elaph’s Qahtani. "The government needs to use its influence to counter the religious establishment through education and other societal institutions. ... For centuries the religious establishment has been the sole voice on these issues."
While Saudi Arabia’s government and religious establishment shoulder much blame for press restrictions, trouble also lies within the profession. "The editors are part of the problem,” said Sulaiman al-Hattlan, a former Al-Watan columnist who is now editor of Forbes Arabia in Dubai. “They have established a school of journalism that doesn’t permit criticism.”
Saudi writers paint an unflattering picture of the country’s chief editors as government loyalists who have held their job for many years, and who have little interest in jeopardizing their privileged positions by challenging authority. Top editors are quick to suspend critical writers and to spike contentious columns.
In highlighting the failure of the main dailies to live up to their potential, many journalists draw comparisons to new Saudi media such as Al-Watan, London-based Saudi-owned dailies Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat, and the online news site Elaph. By emphasizing youth and in-depth reporting, each has pushed the boundaries of what is permissible.
Even government officials criticize the lack of zeal of the mainstream press. “Some editors have been in their jobs for too long, but we cannot do anything about it,” said Madani, the information minister. “If it were up to me I would change them tomorrow. I think these papers need young blood.”
In meetings with CPJ, leading editors were deferential to government officials and quick to downplay restrictions. Nearly all painted a positive picture of the country’s media environment, despite some conflicts with the religious establishment. “There have been many changes in the press,” said al-Sudeiri, the Al-Riyadh editor. “Before it used to be difficult to write about religious groups, but now we write about them.”
But al-Sudeiri emphasized that the press must respect the country’s conservative social fabric. He cautioned against “absolute” freedom and said that maintaining national security and unity was the main responsibility of the press. “Journalism in the kingdom touches many aspects that are important to citizens, but we have to handle it in a way that will benefit the best interests of the citizens and institutions,” he said.
Al-Sudeiri heads the Saudi Journalists’ Association, which was formed in February 2003 with government approval. Composed of the kingdom’s leading editors, it has been almost entirely inactive; in meetings with CPJ, the group’s directors proudly declared that they had not received a single complaint from a Saudi journalist. Asked whether the association would advocate for colleagues banned by the government, al-Sudeiri said such matters should be handled by the Labor Ministry.
Most rank-and-file journalists had little idea of the association’s agenda and were pessimistic it would ever be a force for change. Even Madani was unsparing in criticizing the association’s leaders. “As far as we are concerned, they have done nothing,” he said. “We are waiting for them to move, to register a presence, to do anything!”
Beyond editors-in-chief, Saudi journalists said the media suffer from a lack of professionalism and an inability to attract well-trained people who see journalism as a full-time career. Line editors are often expatriates from Egypt, Lebanon, or the Subcontinent who may not grasp the importance of a local story—but can be as ruthless at spiking stories as Saudi editors, say some writers. The absence of professional training and journalism schools, coupled with a culture of self-censorship, has fostered apathy among many young journalists.
As the world’s leading oil producer with 25 percent of known petroleum reserves and as a frontline state in the battle against al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia will remain at the center of international attention for some time. Analysts fear that the country—confronted by unemployment, economic inequities, the threat of terrorism, corruption, and the presence of religious militancy—faces political upheaval unless it allows its citizens a greater say in how the country is governed.
Abdullah, the de facto ruler for the last 10 years who formally assumed the throne after an ailing King Fahd bin Abdel Aziz died last year, has spoken of the need for “gradual” political and social reform. In the last year, Saudi Arabia has undertaken small steps to open its political system, such as holding the country’s first municipal elections.
The long road to reform is fraught with challenge. Members of the ruling al-Saud family have different views on the need for change. And religious conservatives, at least in recent decades, have held the upper hand over liberal reformists. Already in 2006, the government has sent mixed signals. Some once-banned columnists reappeared in print, even as the government shut down two Internet news sites and arrested Shams writer Rabah al-Quwai’ for “denigrating Islamic beliefs.”
Reform-minded journalists say change must be quicker, more substantive, and permanent. Real progress, they say, requires empowering the media to serve as a platform for free and open debate on critical issues facing Saudi Arabia. “Our country today faces internal and external challenges that we need to overcome or there will be a new wave of violence,” Saudi writer Muhammad Mahfouz said during a diwaniya in the eastern city of Qatif. “The first door of reform is an open press.”
Recommendations to the Saudi government
CPJ calls on the government of Saudi Arabia to implement the following recommendations aimed at bringing the country’s practices in line with international standards:
• State publicly that the Saudi government has a duty under internationally recognized norms of free expression to ensure media freedom and pluralism, including the dissemination of diverse views and opinions critical of prevailing state policies.
• Encourage journalists to carry out independent reporting—including critical news coverage of the royal family, government, and religious establishment—by issuing an explicit guarantee that authorities will not penalize them, directly or indirectly, for such professional activities.
• Cease all official interference in the daily operation of newspapers. Halt the imposition of bans against critical journalists. Stop the intimidation and detention of journalists for their writing.
• Encourage independence and diversity in the local press. End the practice of approving the appointments of editors-in-chief. Ease the process of obtaining newspaper licenses for all citizens, regardless of whether they have backing from the royal family or the government.
• Take immediate steps to privatize broadcast media with the intention of fostering independent news and opinion on Saudi television and radio, including views that are critical of the government and its policies.
• Halt the censoring of news Web sites.
Because of the unique role played by Saudi editors-in-chief, CPJ calls on these top editors to implement the following recommendations:
• Encourage journalists and writers to conduct enterprise news reporting and opinion writing, including reports critical of the government.
• Halt disciplinary actions, job dismissals, and other sanctions levied against journalists for critical work.
CPJ urges the Saudi Journalists Association to implement these steps:
• Establish a permanent committee that actively reports and publicizes press freedom violations in the Saudi media. Violations should include cases of journalists arrested, dismissed from their jobs, or otherwise prevented from carrying out their professional duties due to their published work.
• Create a mechanism by which journalists can file complaints with the committee, have the association take action on their behalf, and have the association actively defend their interests and rights.
Joel Campagna is senior program coordinator responsible for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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