Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 April 2014, 10:56 GMT

Internet Enemies: Saudi Arabia

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 12 March 2009
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Internet Enemies: Saudi Arabia, 12 March 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a38f98521.html [accessed 23 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.

Domain name: .sa
Population: 27,601,038
Internet-users: 6,200,000
Average charge for one hour's connection at a cybercafé: not available
Average monthly salary: not available
Number of private Internet service providers: 22 (official figure)
Number of public Internet service providers: 1
Number of imprisoned bloggers: 0

The Saudi authorities have not made official their filtering of websites but they do crackdown on bloggers who challenge their morality, whatever the nature of the demands. A highly dissuasive policy in a country which does not have a criminal code and which arrests authors of "content that is offensive or violates the principles of the Islamic religion and social norms".

In the first such move, Saudi authorities in 2008 imprisoned the blogger Fouad al-Farhan for more than four months for posting on his blog (http://www.alfarhan.org), an article describing the "advantages" and "disadvantages"of being a Muslim. Nicknamed "the god father", Fouad al-Farhan is one of the kingdom's best known bloggers. His arrest was a message of intimidation to the blogosphere. Saudi authorities arrested the blogger Hamoud Ben Saleh on 13 January 2009 for having used his website to describe his conversion to Christianity. His site, http://christforsaudi.blogspot.com,was added to the list of more than 400,000 that are officially blocked to "protect Saudi society".

Net filtering was initially carried out by the Internet Service Unit, which comes under the Department of Science and Technology at the King Abdul Aziz University, but was entrusted in March 2007 to a specialised commission linked to the government. This commission stepped up filtering to combat terrorism, fraud, pornography,defamation and "violation of religious values".

Steps in this regard were taken at the start of 2008 making legally responsible service providers or distributors of computer equipment who failed to observe the rules. So, a cybercafé owner is liable to a prison sentence for posting on his premises of an article contrary to these"religious values".

Easy export of censorship

The reach of the Saudi Internet is such that censorship affecting the kingdom sometimes spills over to other countries using the same networks to get connected. Since the end of 2008, the Saudi Communications Authority has ordered the blocking of some websites, because of their content dealing with religious matters or morals, making access to them impossible. As a result, the hosting and web design site Onix.com has been inaccessible since December in Saudi Arabia and in the United Arab Emirates, along with the blog of Eve, a Saudi woman who deals with the rights of women and religious affairs in the country. Onix.com hosts blogs including that of Ali al-Omary, the first blind Arab blogger, whose site is highly popular in the region.

But the Saudis also protect their "friends" in the region. In January 2008, a Syrian organisation got a site on the Saudi network that was criticising Syria shut down. This very popular website, Elaph, has however been accessible again in Saudi Arabia since 19 February 2009, without any explanation from the authorities. The wide ranging website al-hora (http://al-hora.com/)has been inaccessible since 25 December 2007. It deals with all subjects, from politics to culture and allows Internet users to post their own comments.Online exchanges are considered to be a factor in immorality.

Posting a comment on a website deemed "immoral" by the authorities can lead to arrest. This is all the easier since the kingdom does not have a written criminal code. Security services and courts base judgements on vague and extremely broad notions of criminal law.

Social networks lead to immorality

Because of this, websites that promote exchanges between bloggers, such as virtual social networking sites, MySpace and Tagged, are inaccessible in the kingdom. Certain sites allowing users to get round online censorship are also blocked, as is the Arabic version of the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia. Censorship is very broad, going from websites of political organisations to those of non-recognised Islamist movements, and including any publication with anything to do with sexuality, so as to "protect citizens from content that is offensive or violates the principles of the Islamic religion and social norms".In fact, Saudi women, who are not allowed to work in shops or to drive cars, have enthusiastically taken to the Internet, making up two thirds of users in 2000.

The appearance of blogs has allowed them to express themselves freely about their daily lives. That is why sites dealing with the feminine condition are very widely filtered.For example, the site "The voice of women" (http://www.saudiwomen.net) has been blocked since 15 October 2008 by the Saudi Communications Authority, which considers it to be contrary to official policy.

But censorship also bars any consultation of health advice (breast cancer checks for example), because of the use of key words. The blogger Hamoud Ben Saleh is not the only victim of online religious censorship. The blogger and poet Rushdie al-Ghadir was arrested by the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) on 4 November 2008. He was accused of blasphemy over poems posted on his website (http://rushdie.mkatoobblog.com). Al-Ghadir was interrogated for eight hours by police in Dammam in the east of the country and was forced to promise not to write any more such poems. The blogger laid a complaint against the CPVPV the next day.

Links:
http://www.saudihr.org/: human rights website in Saudi Arabia (English and Arabic)
http://www.gulfissues.net/: news website about Gulf states (English)
http://saudijeans.org/: blog by a student n Riyadh (English)
http://arabictadwin.maktoobblog.com/: website of the Saudi bloggers union (Arabic)
http://www.saudiblogs.org: aggregator of Saudi blogs (English)
http://www.elaph.com: website on the Arab world (Arabic)

Search Refworld

Countries