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Attacks on the Press in 1996 - Saudi Arabia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1997
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1996 - Saudi Arabia, February 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5651523.html [accessed 30 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The autocratic and largely undemocratic regimes that govern these countries have significantly hindered the development of a free press. While private ownership of the media exists, journalists operate under severe constraints in providing independent or critical reporting on the domestic affairs of their own country.

Saudi Arabia, the largest and most influential member of the GCC, has perhaps the most restricted press in the Middle East. King Fahd must approve the hiring of editors and may dismiss them at will. Journalists, as a result, keep to the unofficial boundaries of acceptable journalism and almost never challenge the policies of the royal family or report on sensitive domestic matters.

Beyond its borders, Saudi Arabia exercises tremendous leverage over the regional and international press. For example, the Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat and the magazine Al-Wasat, both based in London, are owned by Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, a nephew of King Fahd. Similarly, the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat and its sister publication, Al-Majallah, belong to Prince Ahmad Bin Salman. And the wire service United Press International (UPI), which is a subsidiary of the Middle East Broadcasting Corp. (MBC), is owned by the prominent Saudi businessman Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim.

The type of indirect influence the kingdom employs over news content is perhaps best exhibited by the constraints faced by the respected daily Al-Hayat. On the one hand, the newspaper is able to maintain editorial autonomy over news content. On the other hand, due to its overwhelming dependency on advertising revenue from companies within Saudi Arabia, it carefully avoids sensitive news stories which might lead to its banning in the kingdom and the subsequent alienation of advertisers.

The Saudi government also exerts considerable influence over the local press in other Arab countries. According to Abdul Bari Atwan, editor of the independent London-based Arabic daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, the Saudi government has signed "media protocols" with the ministries of information in several Arab countries that, in effect, obligate them to censor any news that discusses internal Saudi politics or criticism of state officials. Government officials in Egypt appeared to operate under this pretext when the Ministry of Information prohibited the Middle East Times, a Cairo-based, English-language weekly, from publishing an interview with Saudi dissident Muhammad Maasari in its Sept. 15-21 issue. Elsewhere, government censors from five Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE – banned the distribution of Reader's Digest magazine in July because of an article dealing with political instability in Saudi Arabia.

In Kuwait, the press ultimately remains loyal to the ruling Al-Sabah family, avoiding meaningful criticism of the government. At the close of 1996, 15 journalists remained in prison in Kuwait – the largest number of imprisoned journalists for any country in the Arab world. They were tried and convicted by state security courts for allegedly collaborating with the Iraqi occupiers by working for a newspaper published during the occupation.

In Qatar, the press witnessed at least one positive development in 1996. In February, the government of Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifah al-Thani privatized the nation's existing radio and television stations. The move followed a previous effort toward liberalization when, in late 1995, the state formally abolished requirements for the screening of publications and media broadcasts. Although certain guidelines still exist for journalists, the media have clearly become more aggressive in its reporting in recent months.

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