19 January 2011

New regulation curbs free expression online

Saudi Arabia continues to live up to its position as one of the world's worst countries to be a blogger by passing a draconian "electronic publication" regulation that further restricts free expression online, report the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

The Executive Regulation for Electronic Publishing, which came into effect on 1 January, subjects virtually all news and commentary distributed online, including blogs and web forums, to the "restrictive" Press and Publications Law, say the IFEX members.

The press law requires all publishers to abide by Islamic law, as well as to adhere to broadly-worded content limitations, including bans on "offending" others and "compromising" the nation's economy or security, says Human Rights Watch.

Under the regulation, all online newspapers, websites of traditional media, advertising websites, sites with audiovisual components and text-messaging services need a licence to operate. Applicants must apply for permits every three years, be at least 20 years old and have a high school degree.

Although bloggers are not required to get a licence, they are subject to the regulations and are encouraged to register their blogs by providing their full names and addresses, says CPJ. "We are concerned that such a registry may be used to prosecute journalists who criticise the government," said CPJ.

Editors-in-chief must be approved by the Culture and Information Ministry, as are the editors for Saudi Arabia's print media, television and radio.

Those who breach the rules (and what constitutes a breach is also vaguely worded) can be fined and have their websites blocked, says ANHRI.

ANHRI says the regulation coincides with the authorities blocking the Saudi Arabia page on the Arabic language site of the online whistleblower Wikileaks.

ANHRI said, "It is not a regulation to regulate the activities of electronic publishing as they claim, but rather a set of measures to seize freedom of publication on the Internet."

"This regulation renders the Saudi government top of the list of autocratic governments not only in the Arab world, but worldwide," added ANHRI.

According to the IFEX members, the Saudi authorities regularly restrict free expression and punish people for expressing critical views. For instance, last June, Shaikh Mikhlif bin Dahham al-Shammari, a human rights activist, was detained and eventually charged with "annoying others" over articles he had published criticising government officials and extremist clerics. He is still in jail awaiting trial.

On 3 January, Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of a message al-Shammari sent from Dammam prison, saying that guards regularly beat and insult the inmates. A Human Rights Watch source said that al-Shammari was put in solitary confinement for sending the message.

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