On April 29, as Arabs throughout the Middle East were dying for greater freedom, the Saudi government passed new amendments to a media law banning all criticism of the country’s religious and political leaders. The amendments to Royal Decree No. 32, originally published in 2000, are “binding on all responsible persons in publishing” and demand “objective and constructive criticism aimed at the public interest and based on real facts.” Anyone who harms the “good reputation and honor” of government officials, the grand mufti, and members of the senior religious council will be imprisoned or fined up to one million riyal. Violating the media law can get one banned from publishing ever again.
“The new regulations are unbelievable,” prominent Saudi blogger Khaled Yeslam told me. “You can’t criticize anymore. That’s it. We don’t have any journalists anymore. We have advertising companies.” A reporter at one of Saudi Arabia’s leading newspapers said on condition of anonymity, “We have no rights. The media is regressing. Everything has been destroyed. Saudis need a new 9/11 to have more freedom."
What does that shocking statement mean? “After 9/11 there was a strong pressure on Saudi Arabia to grant more rights for Saudis and reduce radicalism,” he said. “Ten years later, the government is again putting power in the hands of religious fundamentalists. Don’t be surprised when you see hate speech spreading in Saudi Arabia.”
One anecdote that supports this view was an incident at a recent book fair in Riyadh. A group of men called rijal al hisba, or “those who look after you,” stormed the fair attacking women and intimidating book sellers. Three times a day this gang showed up to harass women. When the Saudi minister of Culture and Information, Dr. Abdulaziz Khojah, appeared at the fair they shouted him down. “You'll go to hell,” they chanted. “Don’t you fear Allah?”
Rather than stand their ground, the government caved. The gang “achieved their goals,” Wajeha al Huweider, one of Saudi Arabia’s most respected women’s-rights activist, told me. “After this, women were not allowed to mix with men. They gave them a different time and some books were removed. Women who came with publishers to sell books were also removed. Men were brought instead.”
Prominent Saudi blogger and journalist, Abdulwahab Saleh Al Oraid, sees a direct connection between growing religious influence and the new amendments. “It gives religious movements power over local media and liberal authors in Saudi Arabia. I expect many writers to stop working due to lack of freedom. Media outlets have been directed to be cautious with what they publish because they could be fined up to $125,000 if the religious authorities file a complaint."
King Abdullah has recently allocated hundreds of millions of riyals to religious authorities and religious police. “The next 10 years will set us back 30,” a Saudi writer told me on condition of anonymity. “Everyone in Saudi Arabia is talking about how crazy and radicalized everything will be. The government is supporting the religious police and they are giving hundreds of millions to sheikhs and clerics."
What will be the upshot of these policies? “You will see Bin Laden again,” he said ominously. “You will see 9/11."
The media is regressing. Everything has been destroyed. Saudis need a new 9/11 to have more freedom.”
On Twitter, Saudi blogger Ahmad Al Omran contrasted the new press law, which “adds further restriction on media and freedom of expression,” to King Abdullah’s statement in 2008 that “responsible freedom is the right of every pure soul....As god is my witness, I have never hesitated to sharply and honestly criticize myself.”
Saudi liberals see through this rhetoric. Many are pleading with America to take a more active role in pressuring their government. “America should help liberalize the Saudi media and increase pressure to remove radicalism from the educational system,” the aforementioned journalist said. “It also must weaken the religious police. If they remain so powerful, how will women ever drive?"
The recent amendment is yet one more indication that the Saudi government is an enemy of freedom and disconnected from the trends sweeping the Arab world. While the rest of the region inches forward, Saudi Arabia lurches backward into its comfort zone: theocratic tyranny and fundamentalist repression.