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Attacks on the Press in 1999 - The Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 2000
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1999 - The Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and others, February 2000, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c565aac.html [accessed 29 July 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.

Over the past two decades, journalism has made tremendous strides in the oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian peninsula. Benefiting from generous budgets and advanced technology, private newspapers have flourished. Some are now counted among the most influential papers in the Arab world. But for the most part, journalism in the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – remains far from free. In these highly autocratic states, independent journalists are hindered by a variety of official and self-imposed constraints.

However, the citizens of the GCC are increasingly turning to satellite TV and the Internet for alternatives to suffocating official media.

BROADCASTING IN THE GULF

Saudi Arabia continues to exert considerable leverage over the influential pan-Arab media. Royal-family members and Saudi businessmen with close links to the royal family own several important regional newspapers and television stations. The prominent London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat and its sister magazine, Al-Wasat, are 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.

In the TV arena, Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC) is owned by prominent Saudi businessman Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of King Fahd. Two other powerhouse regional networks, Orbit and Arab Radio and Television (ART), are also Saudi-owned. All these stations avoid any programming that might offend the Saudi regime. Even news about political developments in neighboring Arab countries is notably restrained. Some observers contend that this stems from Saudis fears of provoking retaliatory attacks from media in those countries.

But this Saudi dominance of regional media has been significantly weakened by the growing popularity and influence of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel. Founded in 1996 with a start-up grant of $140 million from the Qatari government, the station has swiftly transformed the pan-Arab media scene through its bold, uncensored coverage of regional events. Tackling controversial subjects such as human rights, social and religious taboos, and the views of political dissidents, the station has become the most popular news station in the Arab world. Al-Jazeera has made it difficult for more docile stations such as MBC to maintain their pretense of objectivity.

The station's hard-hitting coverage provoked a steady chorus of condemnation from Arab states. In June, Kuwait banned Al-Jazeera's reporters from working in the country after an Iraqi caller criticized Emir Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah during a live call-in talk show. The station's reporters were apparently prohibited from entering Saudi Arabia, and Saudi authorities banned all satellite transmissions at public coffeehouses in Riyadh in July, apparently to keep the station out of public view. The move followed Al-Jazeera's broadcast of a program in which a Kuwaiti intellectual criticized monarchical rule in the gulf states.

Saudi authorities have adopted other, more subtle tactics to pressure Al-Jazeera. In the spring of 1999, the Saudi government reportedly asked Al-Jazeera's Saudi-owned advertising agency, Tihama, not to place ads with the station and has urged other local advertisers to follow suit.

THE GULF ONLINE

Internet use in the gulf states continued to grow despite government censorship in some countries. In January 1999, Saudi Arabia allowed public access to the Internet after years of preparation, but authorities maintained tight control over the sites that users can access. In order to keep out undesirable material, the Saudis have instituted one of the world's most thorough Web-filtering systems. Although private Internet service providers exist, all information accessed from the Internet must first pass through a government proxy server designed to filter out morally and politically undesirable sites. According to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, Saudi officials contend that the filtering system is designed to keep out sexually oriented material. Even so, "the site of at least one exiled dissident group, the Committee Against Corruption in Saudi Arabia, was reportedly blocked."

The Saudi filtering system seems modeled on one already in place in the United Arab Emirates, where authorities also use a proxy server to weed out morally offensive materials. It is unclear to what extent the UAE system also blocks politically sensitive content.

Bahrain

The sudden death of Emir Sheikh Issa Bin Salman al-Khalifa in March was followed by the smooth succession of his son, Sheikh Hamad Bin Issa al-Khalifa. The political violence that marked past years in this tiny Persian Gulf archipelago appeared to be on the decline. So too did overt government harassment of journalists. However, self-censorship continued to hamper the press, which for the most part avoided criticizing the government and covering state human-rights abuses.

For the second time in three years, authorities expelled a journalist from the country, forcing former Al-Jazeera satellite television show host Hamed Ansari to leave Bahrain shortly after his arrival to deliver a lecture. The measure was taken in response to a show he had hosted earlier in the year, when a caller criticized the emir of Kuwait. Bahraini authorities had previously expelled DPA correspondent Ute Meinel in 1997 for quoting a London-based opposition group to the effect that the government planned to bomb Shiite villages.

June 29
Dr. Hamed al-Ansari, Al-Jazeera EXPELLED

Bahrain authorities deported Al-Ansari, a former talk-show host with the Qatar-based satellite television station Al-Jazeera. The action apparently came in response to an episode of al-Ansari's program "Sharia and Life" during which a viewer phoned in and criticized the emir of Kuwait on the air.

Al-Ansari, a professor at Qatar University, had come to Bahrain to deliver a lecture. He was no longer working for Al-Jazeera at the time of his expulsion. Speaking to the Associated Press, a Bahraini official justified the expulsion by saying, "We are one gulf family, where respect for each other is the rule. On this basis [al-Ansari] was banned from giving the lecture."

Kuwait

Although Kuwait enjoys one of the region's most vibrant and respected presses, journalists recently experienced a noticeable deterioration in their freedoms. Government censorship continued in 1999, as did criminal prosecutions of reporters under the country's press law and criminal code. After a welcome January court decision that canceled a six-month prison sentence imposed on former Al-Qabas editor Muhammad Jasim al-Saqr in 1998 for publishing a joke about Adam and Eve in his paper, judicial authorities pursued another high-profile prosecution. In October, local academic Dr. Ahmad al-Baghdadi was sentenced to one month in prison for allegedly defaming Islam and the prophet Muhammad in a 1996 article that he wrote for the Kuwait University student magazine Al-Shoula. Al-Baghdadi was quickly freed after the emir pardoned him a few weeks later.

Shortly after al-Baghdadi's conviction, authorities suspended the daily Al-Siyassah for five days in response to a story it published on a local Islamist figure who indirectly criticized the emir's decision to grant women the right to vote.

In February, three of the remaining five journalists jailed in Kuwait for their work with the Iraqi-occupation newspaper Al-Nida were pardoned by the emir and released. Since 1996, a total of 15 Al-Nida journalists have been freed – many as a result of the emir's annual pardon, which coincides with Kuwait's annual celebration of its National Day and its liberation from Iraqi occupation.

However, two of the Al-Nida journalists remained in jail at year's end: Fawwaz Muhammad al-Awadi Bessisso and Ibtisam Berto Sulaiman al-Dakhil. In June 1991, these two journalists and three of their colleagues were convicted of collaborating with Iraqi-occupation forces and sentenced to life in prison.

In an April 2 meeting with Kuwaiti ambassador Dr. Muhammad al-Sabah in Washington, a CPJ delegation led by board member Peter Arnett urged their release. "Nearly a decade after the Gulf War, it is an opportune time for Kuwait to close this painful chapter and release the remaining imprisoned journalists," said Arnett. At the conclusion of the meeting, Ambassador al-Sabah said he was "hopeful that we will be in a position to say that there will be no one in jail from the Iraqi occupation in the near future."

June 19
Al-Jazeera CENSORED

Citing alleged violations of professional ethics, Information Minister Youssef Muhammad al-Sumait issued a decree prohibiting reporters with the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel from covering stories in Kuwait.

According to the Kuwait News Agency, the decree stipulated that "media activity or any other activity by [Al-Jazeera] would not be allowed in the State of Kuwait and that the journalistic and media work permits of all those working at the Al-Jazeera office in Kuwait or those who cooperate with it had been revoked."

The ban came in response to an early-June broadcast of the live program "Sharia and Life." During the broadcast, which dealt with women's rights, a viewer who identified himself as an Iraqi national phoned in and strongly criticized Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait. In response to a guest who had asked that God save Sheikh Jaber, the caller reportedly said that God should not be asked to protect a man "who embraces atheists and permits foreign armies to enter Kuwait."

Al-Sumait said Al-Jazeera was banned because it had the "audacity to attack" the emir and the state of Kuwait. In a June 22 letter to al-Sumait, CPJ condemned the ban and called for its immediate reversal.

On July 29, Kuwait's new information minister, Dr. Saad bin Tiflah al-Ajami, announced that the ban had been reversed. "Dealing with [the station] is important and necessary," al-Ajami said. "For the sake of Qatar we will welcome Al-Jazeera."

October 4
Ahmed al-Baghdadi, free-lancer IMPRISONED

An appellate court sentenced al-Baghdadi, head of the political-science department at Kuwait University and a regular contributor to the daily newspaper Al-Siyassah, to one month in prison for allegedly defaming Islam and the prophet Muhammad. That same day, police arrested al-Baghdadi at his home and took him to Talha Prison to begin his sentence. The charge stemmed from a 1996 article that al-Baghdadi wrote for the Kuwait University student magazine Al-Shoula. In the article, al-Baghdadi stated that the prophet Muhammad had initially failed in his mission to convert nonbelievers to Islam while in Mecca but was eventually successful in Medina. The lawsuit was reportedly filed by the imam of a Kuwaiti mosque, who argued that applying the term "failed" to the prophet constituted blasphemy.

CPJ condemned al-Baghdadi's imprisonment in an October 5 letter to Emir Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah. Al-Baghdadi was released on October 18, after the emir pardoned him.

October 17
Al-Siyassah CENSORED

Kuwait's Council of Ministers imposed a five-day suspension on the daily Al-Siyassah for allegedly insulting the emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Jaber al-Ahmed al-Sabah.

The decision came in response to an October 16 article that ran on the front page of Al-Siyassah. The piece quoted Hamed al-Ali, a local Islamist figure who is secretary general of the Salafiyya Movement (Haraka Salafiyya). Al-Ali referred to an alleged "secular conspiracy in the gulf" and indirectly criticized the emir for granting women the right to vote and to participate in politics. Al-Ali's comments were widely covered in the independent Kuwaiti press, though Al-Siyassah was the only paper to feature the story on its front page.

The suspension began on October 18. In an October 19 letter to Sheikh Jaber, CPJ protested the suspension and urged that it be reversed immediately. Al-Siyassah resumed publication on October 23.

Saudi Arabia

The press in Saudi Arabia, the largest and most influential member of the GCC, remains among the most restricted anywhere in the Arab world. The conservative monarchy tolerates no media dissent; the king, the royal family, and government policies are all off-limits to criticism. And authorities maintain close oversight of newspapers. The Ministry of Information approves the hiring of editors and can dismiss them at will. Generous state subsidies to newspapers, meanwhile, foster an attitude of compliant dependence. Censors also scrutinize foreign publications entering the country, rooting out any content thought to offend Islam or cast Saudi Arabia in a negative light.

As a result, objective news about local developments was scarce. Foreign reporters continued to have great difficulty obtaining visas to report from Saudi Arabia. And most officials are reluctant to speak frankly to journalists. In an unusually open critique of the government's guarded stance on information, Saudi editor Abderrahman al-Rashed of the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat complained, "No one knows the number of people sitting at home without a job. No one knows how many are threatened with unemployment within the next two years. No one knows the size of overseas investment ... [or] about many things pertaining to medical care, water, and other public services."

Despite the wall of silence surrounding local events – particularly sensitive topics such as human-rights abuses – information occasionally leaks out. In April, for example, CPJ received unconfirmed reports about the arrest of 70-year-old columnist Ishak al-Sheikh Yaacoub, who writes for the Saudi daily Al-Youm and the Kuwaiti opposition weekly Al-Taleeah. Yaacoub was reportedly arrested after he offended authorities in an Al-Taleeah column. He was said to have been released after a few weeks in custody.

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