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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5654bc.html [accessed 19 April 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 member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – remain hostile territory for independent journalism. The print media are mostly privately owned and often enjoy the benefits of cutting-edge technology, but journalists operate under severe constraints in providing independent or critical reporting on the domestic affairs of their respective countries.

Saudi Arabia, the largest and most influential member of the GCC, has perhaps the most tightly controlled press in the Middle East. The Ministry of Information approves the hiring of editors and may dismiss them at will. Criticism of the government or the royal family is taboo, as is discussion of controversial political issues. At the very least, transgressors will be punished with dismissal from their jobs. The state tightly monitors foreign publications entering the kingdom, weeding out news that touches on sensitive internal political issues, criticizes Islam, or discusses the country's dismal human rights record. Foreign journalists continue to face impediments in gaining entry to the country.

Saudi Arabia's tight control of the media also extends beyond the kingdom's national borders. In the 1990s, businessmen with close ties to the royal family invested heavily in the expanding pan-Arab media and now exercise tremendous leverage over its content and programming. Among Saudi-owned publications are the influential Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat and the magazine Al-Wasat, both based in London and owned by Prince Khaled Bin Sultan, a nephew of King Fahd. Another influential pan-Arab paper, the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, is owned by Prince Ahmad Bin Salman. And the popular Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), with a region-wide viewership in the tens of millions, is owned by the prominent Saudi businessman Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of King Fahd. The other main broadcasting networks which service the region, such as Arab Radio and Television (ART) and Orbit, are also Saudi-owned. News and programming from these sources rarely, if ever, disseminate criticism of the Saudi regime or report on sensitive political issues vis-à-vis the kingdom.

Despite their ostensible editorial independence, some Saudi-owned publications have made a financial decision to censor themselves. "Our main concern is not to be banned in Saudi Arabia because most of the advertising comes from the Saudi market," said one editor from Al-Hayat. "From time to time, we have taken into consideration Saudi censorship."

The Saudi government exerts considerable influence over the local press in other Arab countries. Across the region, media criticism of Saudi human rights abuses or official corruption has prompted strong official responses. Some journalists contend that the Saudi government has signed "media protocols" with the ministries of information in several Arab countries which, in effect, obligate them to censor any news that discusses internal Saudi politics or criticism of state officials. CPJ has documented instances of censorship or state prosecution of newspapers and journalists in Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and GCC countries for unfavorable coverage of Saudi affairs. One example is that of Walid Husseini, the editor of the Beirut-based daily Kifah al-Arabi, who was convicted and sentenced to 60 days in prison in 1996 for an editorial allegedly defaming King Fahd. He also faces criminal charges filed by Lebanese authorities in retaliation for another editorial that criticized King Fahd and Lebanon's close relations with Saudi Arabia. "[For] anything bad you say about Saudi Arabia ... they will take you to court," commented one Arab journalist. The fear of such backlash has forced some Arab journalists outside of Saudi Arabia to censor themselves on Saudi issues.

In Kuwait, the press enjoys a considerable degree of freedom. Privately owned newspapers carry stories on a wide variety of socio-political issues, providing critical coverage of the government and state policies. Nonetheless, journalists engage in self-censorship, particularly with regard to criticism of the Emir, and avoid commentary that might be viewed as offensive toward Islam. In a welcome development, the government released six journalists from prison in February as part of a general amnesty. They had been tried and convicted by state security courts and martial law tribunals after the liberation of Kuwait for "collaborating" with the Iraqi occupiers – charges that stemmed from their employment with the newspaper Al-Nida, which was published in Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation. Some of those who were released reported that they had been tortured during their incarceration. Seven journalists from Al-Nida remain in Kuwait Central Prison.

In Bahrain, the government pressured the media for its coverage of political unrest, which has entered its third year. On July 1, authorities expelled Deutsche Presse Agentur correspondent Ute Meinel because of a news report in which she quoted an opposition group. Other foreign news agencies, meanwhile, reported harassment and intimidation by authorities. The local private press, which functions under legal restrictions that prohibit criticism of the Emir and allow authorities to ban publications that offend the state, has increasingly engaged in self-censorship, particularly regarding local unrest.

Collectively, GCC states have stepped up their efforts to restrict Internet access on information deemed immoral or politically subversive. In 1997, the UAE announced that the country's sole Internet service provider, Etisalat, would block access to websites it deemed morally offensive. Saudi Arabia is expected to follow a similar model when it officially launches Internet service in the kingdom in 1998.

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