Letters   |   Saudi Arabia

Saudi online media regulations alarmingly restrictive

January 14, 2011 

Abd al-Aziz bin Muhaydin al-Khuja 
Ministry of Culture and Information 
Nasseriya Street, Riyadh 11161 
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia 

Via facsimile: +966-1-402-3570 

Dear Minister al-Khuja,

The Committee to Protect Journalists is deeply concerned about new regulations for online media you issued on January 1. The rules contain several provisions that can be used to restrict coverage. The provisions are vaguely worded, contain numerous loopholes, and grant the Ministry of Culture and Information blanket powers without providing online media protection against abuse. Most alarmingly, the new regulations would also subject online media to the kingdom's already existing highly repressive press law.

We call on you to ensure that the new regulations are revoked or, at a minimum, amended, in order to improve Saudi's record of online press freedom, which was already abysmal before these new restrictive measures. A 2009 CPJ study found Saudi Arabia to be one of the 10 worst countries worldwide in which to be a blogger. 

The new regulations have stated goals: to "support meaningful electronic media" and to ensure the "ministry's support and patronage for electronic websites and their employees by facilitating the conduct of their jobs." However, the letter and the spirit of the new regulations contradict those statements.      

Article 5 requires all online newspapers, websites of traditional media, advertising websites, and sites containing audiovisual components, as well as text-messaging services, to obtain a license to operate. It lists several restrictive conditions to get a license: Saudi citizenship, a minimum age of 20 years, a high school degree, and "good conduct." The article fails to provide a timeframe in which the ministry has to issue the license after applicants submit the required documents. 

Article 7 states that the editors-in-chief of online newspapers have to be approved by the ministry, as is already required in traditional media. This provision is a direct threat to the independence of online publications. After an outcry from journalists, who argued that editors ought to be appointed based on merit and experience as determined by media owners, not government bureaucrats, you assured via your Facebook page that you will drop this condition and to replace it with a requirement that editors' names be provided to the ministry. We ask that there be no such requirement.

Article 2 states that the regulations shall apply to blogs, online forums, online newspapers, websites of traditional media, multimedia websites, online advertisements, text messaging, and mobile phone services, in addition to "any type of online publications that the ministry might find fit to add." Although bloggers are not required to obtain a license, the regulations encourage them to register their blogs by providing their full names and addresses. This provision makes it irrelevant whether the bloggers register or not as they--and anybody else who uses practically any means of electronic communications--can be prosecuted under these provisions. We are concerned that such a registry may be used to prosecute journalists who criticize the government.

Most disturbing is the vagueness in describing penalties and what constitutes a breach of the regulations. Article 17 only states that penalties can take the form of fines, compensation, or blocking websites. However, it does not provide detailed information about the circumstances under which certain types of penalties are applied. It also allows the ministry to partly, temporarily, or completely block a website without specifying the conditions under which such blocking might take place, leaving online publications in the dark as to what constitutes a breach.

Article 19 requires online publications to provide the ministry with information concerning their host company. We are concerned that providing this type of information might be used to pressure host companies to block or delete critical content.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Information, Abdel Rahman al-Hazza, told Al-Riyad newspaper that online publication will be subjected to the press law currently applied to traditional media. Under the press law, a commission decides when publications have violated the law; al-Hazza said this commission will now have purview over electronic media. Article 12 states that online licenses can be revoked at the commission's discretion. It neither specifies what might provoke such a revocation nor provides an avenue for challenging the commission's conclusions. Article 18 grants the commission unfettered discretion in deciding what penalties apply.

Al-Hazza was quoted in the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat assuring that the regulations are open to changes and amendments and that everyone is encouraged to present their views about the new guidelines. We urge you to listen to Saudi bloggers and journalists who have already voiced their concerns, and to make the necessary changes to bring the kingdom's policies closer to international standards of press freedom.

Thank for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Joel Simon
Executive Director

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