Publication date: 03/05/2022

World Press Freedom Day, observed on 3 May every year, provides an annual opportunity to review the state of press freedom around the world, and to challenge the practices and policies of autocratic states toward journalists and their work. In Saudi Arabia, World Press Freedom Day 2022 sees a continuation of repressive policies towards journalists and the media, with the kingdom maintaining its position as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists to work in.

While free expression has historically been repressed in Saudi Arabia, and analogue publications restricted by the 2000 Law of Printing and Publication (updated in 2003), the 2007 Anti-Cybercrime Law built a new framework to suppress free speech online. The vague provisions of the law are frequently used to charge and try journalists and ordinary citizens for expressing their opinions in online publications or on social media. 

ALQST continues to document a wide range of violations against journalists. A general climate of fear and intimidation for freely expressing opinions or challenging the state narrative prevails, with many journalists facing legal prosecution and long prison sentences, and some paying with their lives, merely for carrying out their work.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF), an international NGO that focuses on freedom of information, publishes an annual “World Press Freedom Index” based on a poll of experts – covering aspects such as media pluralism, independence, self-censorship and the legislative framework in 180 countries of the world – together with data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists and media outlets. For 2021, it ranked Saudi Arabia 170th out of the 180 countries and colour-coded it in black, meaning “very bad” (the lowest category). 

The Saudi authorities continue to arrest and prosecute journalists for doing their job and to tighten restrictions on the press, targeting journalists for arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture and even murder, as in the case of Jamal Khashoggi.

The Saudi authorities employ these tactics in order to silence critical voices and restrict the flow of information to members of the public. This creates an atmosphere of self-censorship, which rules out the possibility of any independent journalism, amid the fear of meeting the same fate as journalists already in Saudi jails. The authorities meanwhile seek to discredit independent journalism and the dissemination of independent information and ideas by trying to associate it with terrorism, thereby creating a climate of fear and intimidation that prevents and restricts the sharing and publishing of information.

On World Press Freedom Day let us recall the situation of some of the journalists, writers and bloggers who have been arrested, forcibly disappeared and given harsh judicial sentences for their peaceful work. The Saudi authorities deliberately portray these measures as part of the drive to combat terrorism, and put such people on trial on that basis.

Journalist Turki al-Jasser was arrested on 15 March 2018 in a raid on his home and forcibly disappeared for nearly two years. Finally, in February 2020, in response to a submission from the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council, the Saudi authorities said he was being held in Al-Ha’ir prison and allowed him to make a phone call to his family for the first time. However, since then he has been denied any further contact and remains forcibly disappeared.

Blogger Khaled al-Alkami has been under arrest since September 2017.

Journalist Fahad al-Sunaidi was sentenced by the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC), supposedly set up to try terrorist cases, to three and a half years in prisons for allegedly “supporting the Arab Spring revolutions” and “posting tweets calling for the release of certain prisoners”. He was released on 3 February 2022, nearly a year after his sentence expired in March 2021. 

The media community were stunned when in April 2016 Alaa Brinji was handed a seven-year prison sentence, with an eight-year travel ban to follow his release. A prominent journalist working for well known newspapers like Okaz, Al Bilad and Al Sharq, he was arrested in 2014 and tried in the SCC on charges  – based on Twitter posts in which he backed the right of women in Saudi Arabia to drive, and supported human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience –  that included “insulting the country’s rulers”, “stirring up public opinion” and “accusing security officers of killing demonstrators in Al-Awamiya”. He was released from prison in February 2021 but remains banned from travelling. 

Academic Abdullah al-Maliki was sentenced to seven years in prison for his cultural activities and intellectual views, as well as comments he posted on Twitter.

Reformist writer Zuhair Kutbi was arrested in 2019 in brutal fashion, being beaten and humiliated, and remains under arrest despite being in poor health. Broadcaster Wajdi al-Ghazzawi is serving a 12-year prison term, due to be followed by a 20-year travel ban, for comments made in his YouTube programme Fadfada.

Foreign journalists have also been targeted. Sudanese journalist Ahmed Ali Abdulqader was arrested on arrival at King Abdulaziz Airport in 2021 because of his criticism of Saudi policies in Sudan and Yemen. And Marwan al-Muraisy, a Yemeni journalist and blogger living in Saudi Arabia, was arrested from his home on 1 June 2018 and forcibly disappeared for almost a year. He was not brought before a court until October 2020, and he remains in prison while his trial continues. He has been denied access to a lawyer and family visits.

The list goes on. There have been many arrests of journalists and others working in the media as a way of expressing their opinions and publishing and disseminating information.

It is striking how the much-repeated promises of reform, change and liberalisation that accompanied Mohammed bin Salman’s investiture as Crown Prince have swiftly transformed into a new level of repression aiming to close the public space to people of all ideological persuasions, especially those interested in reform. Journalists and their work have suffered severely from this onslaught, and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 gave a particularly clear indication of this new reality.

This has all been facilitated by a number of loosely phrased laws that leave the authorities plenty of room, when those arrested come to trial, to interpret them in whatever way suits their political aims of silencing and harassing perceived opponents –  and they are used repeatedly to impose prison sentences on people working in the field of journalism.

Although Article 8 of the Printing and Publication Law, for example, states that “Freedom of expression is guaranteed” it then limits and restricts this by adding the vague qualification “within the limits of Sharia and legal provisions”.

Article 9 stipulates that publications should “observe objective and constructive criticism that is aimed in the public interest and based on correct facts and evidence”. However, it lists a set of vaguely worded prohibitions on the publication, in any medium, of anything that would “conflict with the provisions of Islamic Sharia or current legislation”; or “lead to a breach of the country’s security or public order, or serve foreign interests that conflict with the national interest”; or “prejudice the reputation or dignity of or defame or personally insult the the Grand Mufti of the kingdom or members of the Council of Senior Scholars Council or ministers of state or any employee of the state or any natural or private corporate person”; or “harm public life in the country”; or “disclose facts concerning investigations or trials without permission from the competent authority”.

These prohibitions place serious obstacles in the way of journalists trying to do their work, by setting broad red lines that prevent the media from going anywhere near sensitive topics affecting public life, and especially the authorities’ policies and practices at home and abroad.

The Saudi authorities use the Anti-Cybercrime Law to prosecute journalists and online media. Under this law, a number of human rights activists have been put on trial for their human rights work and for expressing their opinions. It is seen as one of the kingdom’s most tyrannical laws and is used to restrict freedom of expression and independent journalism on the internet. One of its loosely phrased provisions sets a prison term of up to five years and/or a fine of up to three million riyals as punishment for anyone who commits crimes including “the production, preparation, transmission or storage of material impinging on public order, religious values, public morals, or privacy, by means of the internet or a computer”. 

The Saudi authorities likewise use the Law on Combating Terrorism and its Financing to prosecute civil society activists and sometimes journalists for peaceful activities relating to human rights and calls for political reform. It allows the expression or dissemination of dissenting views, or even simply posting on social media, to be classified as terrorist acts. Article 30, for example, places criticism of the king or crown prince, whether direct or indirect, within its broad definition of terrorism.

On World Press Freedom Day ALQST calls on the Saudi authorities to stop pursuing journalists, bloggers and writers for peaceful activities related to their work. It reaffirms that publishing, and disseminating information, and expressing opinions are not crimes. The authorities should release all those arrested for their journalistic activities.

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