Freedom of the Press 2017 - Saudi Arabia

Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free
PFS Score: 
Political Environment: 
Economic Environment: 

Key Developments in 2016:

  • Writers and journalists critical of the Saudi regime continued to face legal harassment. In January, Samar Badawi, the sister of imprisoned blogger Raif Badawi, was arrested in connection with her activism on social media.
  • In December, prominent journalist and author Jamal Khashoggi was banned from writing in print media and appearing on broadcast outlets after he criticized Donald Trump, then the U.S. president-elect.
  • The Saudi government continued to shape media coverage of its war in Yemen, cracking down on critical local reporting and restricting access to Yemen by foreign journalists.

Executive Summary

Despite pro-modernization rhetorical shifts, Saudi Arabia continues to have one of the most restricted media environments in the world. Social media has provided a conduit for access to news, but it too is being suppressed as the government seeks to silence criticism of its domestic policies and its war in Yemen, even as initiatives largely spearheaded by the kingdom’s deputy crown prince aim to project an image of liberalization to the west.

Throughout 2016, the government aggressively pursued legal charges against a number of high-profile journalists, writers, bloggers, and social-media activists. Several received lengthy prison sentences, while those who avoided punishment experienced sustained official harassment.

Legal Environment: 29 / 30

Article 39 of the 1992 Basic Law, which covers mass media, does not guarantee freedom of the press, and the authorities are given broad powers to prevent any act that may lead to disunity or sedition. The Basic Law also prohibits publishing materials that harm national security or that “detract from a man’s dignity.” Defamation is a criminal offense, and truth is not a recognized defense in such cases. The 2009 cybercrimes law criminalizes defamation on the internet. Any form of expression that insults Islam is potentially punishable by death, as is the crime of apostasy. The 2003 Printing and Publication Law governs the establishment of media outlets and stipulates penalties for press violations, such as fines and imprisonment. A 2005 royal decree transferred jurisdiction over the media from the court system to the Ministry of Culture and Information, which is authorized to shut down any outlet that it finds to have violated the press law. In addition, since 2011, all online newspapers and bloggers have been required to obtain a special license from the ministry. In practice, a variety of courts hear cases against traditional and online media outlets.

In 2011, as uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa gained momentum, the monarchy issued a decree banning the reporting of news that contradicts Sharia (Islamic law), undermines national security, promotes foreign interests, or slanders religious leaders. The decree amended several articles of the 2003 media law, allowing authorities to impose lifetime professional bans on journalists and levy fines of up to 500,000 riyals ($133,000) for violations. Other amendments barred publication of anything harmful to the state and the coverage of trials without prior authorization from judicial officials.

The Penal Law for Crimes of Terrorism and Its Financing, which took effect in February 2014, defines terrorism as any action intended to “insult the reputation of the state,” “harm public order,” or “shake the security of society,” among other vague descriptions. The scope of the law raised concerns that it could be used to criminalize ordinary journalistic activity. Further regulations issued the following month allow police to make arrests for virtually any criticism of the government; ban “promoting” protests, meetings, or group statements, as well as anything that “harms the unity or stability of the kingdom by any means”; and target “sowing discord in society.”

A number of Saudi journalists remain jailed, including blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes in 2014. In October 2016, it was reported that Badawi was set to receive a new round of lashes as a part of that sentence. In January 2016, Badawi’s sister, prominent human rights activist Samar Badawi, was arrested in connection with her activism on social media. She was released on bail the next day before the charges were ultimately dropped, though she has been subject to continued harassment and interrogation by the police. In March, journalist Alaa Brinji was sentenced to five years in prison, an eight-year travel ban, and a large fine over a series of tweets in which he accused the Saudi government of rights abuses. That same month, writer and Islamic scholar Mohanna Abdulaziz al-Hubail was sentenced to six years in prison for violations of the cybercrime law, including insults against the state. And in April, human rights activist Issa al-Hamid was sentenced to a nine-year prison term on a variety of speech-related charges, including defamation, insulting the state, and violations of the cybercrime law.

Even Saudi commentators with historic ties to the country’s leadership can find themselves in legal jeopardy. In December 2016, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi journalist, was banned from writing in print media and appearing on broadcast outlets after criticizing Donald Trump, then the U.S. president-elect.

Saudi Arabia has no freedom of information law that provides for public access to state-held information, and officials do not disclose details related to sensitive topics such as government spending or allocations to the royal family.

Political Environment: 32 / 40

According to official media policy, the press should be a tool to educate the masses, propagate government views, and promote national unity. Media hews to views considered acceptable by the Saudi government and religious authorities; reporting critical of the Saudi system of governance or Wahhabi Islam is staunchly suppressed, as is unfavorable reporting on Saudi foreign and domestic policy. This has intensified amid the Saudi-led military coalition’s ongoing offensive against Houthi rebels in Yemen: reporting that does not support the military action has been suppressed in local newspapers.

Despite the environment, nearly 74 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2016. Many Saudis have turned to the internet to express political opinions and expose government corruption. Saudi Arabia has as many as five million Twitter users, about half of whom are considered “active.” Widespread discussion of a topic on Twitter often forces traditional news outlets to cover stories that would otherwise be considered too sensitive. The Saudi government has aimed to restrict online expression, unleashing a set of new laws in 2015 requiring online outlets to be registered and licensed. Since the onset of the war in Yemen, the Saudi government has sought to silence criticism of its military action on Twitter. Influential imams are pressured to support the war and curb their criticism of the government’s policies on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Although they do not obstruct large, internationally hosted social-media platforms like Twitter, the authorities are able to monitor and block various websites with relative ease. These include those the government considers immoral, blasphemous, or critical of the regime. Politically sensitive websites, including those associated with the country’s disadvantaged Shiite Muslim minority, are blocked routinely. Protests in Shiite areas are not covered by the local press unless the Ministry of Information releases an official statement. In September 2016, the U.S.-based news website Huffington Post was blocked in the country after it published an article critical of the Saudi regime.

The media have been allowed to observe and report on the functions of some state entities, such as the Shura Council, but access may be arbitrarily withdrawn and is not guaranteed by law. The government has been known to directly censor both local and international media, and journalists routinely practice self-censorship and avoid criticism of the royal family, Islam, or religious authorities.

Physical harassment of journalists is relatively rare. However, both local and foreign reporters frequently face difficulty covering the news in person, especially when trying to access Eastern Province. The Saudi government has used its control of Yemen’s land borders to limit access of foreign journalists to the war-torn country.

Economic Environment: 14 / 30

More than a dozen daily newspapers publish in Saudi Arabia. All are privately owned but controlled by individuals affiliated with the royal family. Members of the royal family also control two popular London-based dailies, Asharq al-Aswat and Al-Hayat, that serve a wider Arab audience. The government owns and operates all terrestrial television and radio stations. Although satellite dishes are illegal, satellite television has become widespread and is an important source of foreign news. Key regional satellite channels, including the popular Al-Arabiya news channel, are controlled by Saudi investors and adhere to local media norms.

Owing to the high costs of entry, the ability to establish digital media outlets is largely limited. Regulations passed in 2015 requiring online sites to have physical offices have further raised the cost of entry.