Attacks on the Press in 1998 - Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council

As of December 31, 1998

The member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Although the press in these countries is largely in private hands and among the most technologically advanced in the Arab world, independent reporting on local affairs remains hindered by state controls and self-censorship. Saudi Arabia, the largest and most influential member of the GCC, tolerates no dissent from journalists. The Ministry of Information approves the hiring of editors and can dismiss them at will. Criticism of the royal family and reporting on sensitive political topics are taboo. Fear of reprisal from authorities – notorious for having one of the region's worst records on human rights – helps to keep journalists in line. The state closely monitors foreign publications entering the kingdom, censoring news deemed to cast the kingdom in a negative light or offend Islam. Foreign journalists continue to face impediments in gaining entry to the country.

In April, the London newspaper The Independent reported that Saudi writer and journalist Zuheir Kutbi had been arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for several weeks by the country's religious police, because of a recently published book in which he criticized their arbitrary and often brutal treatment of civilians. According to the report, news of his arrest was quashed in the Saudi media, and Kutbi was permanently banned from writing books or for the press.

Saudi Arabia also exerts considerable influence over the Pan-Arab media, which over the last eight years have come under the control of Saudi businessmen with links to the royal family. Saudi-owned publications include the influential Arabic daily newspaper Al-Hayat and the weekly 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 regionwide viewership in the tens of millions, is owned by prominent Saudi businessman Sheikh Walid al-Ibrahim, a brother-in-law of King Fahd. The other main broadcasting networks that 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 issues regarded as sensitive in the kingdom. While such media outlets are ostensibly independent, the fear of alienating Saudi advertisers and the threat of being banned in the country typically prove sufficient disincentives to unfavorable coverage.

Throughout the Middle East and North Africa, criticism of Saudi Arabia often triggers swift official responses – a result, some journalists say, of informal agreements between Saudi Arabia and the other Arab states.

In Kuwait – where the press has gained a reputation for being among the freest and most lively in the Arab world – journalists increasingly have come under attack. In the year's most prominent case, a Kuwaiti criminal court in June handed down a six-month prison sentence against Muhammad Jasim al-Saqr, editor in chief of the daily Al-Qabas, and Ibrahim Marzouk, a free-lance journalist based in Egypt, for writing a four-line joke about Adam and Eve. Al-Saqr, a 1992 recipient of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award, and Marzouk were charged with "insulting the essence of the Divine Being." Al-Saqr remained free pending the outcome of his appeal.

In a separate threat to free expression, a government committee in September drafted a law proposal to censor satellite television programming that is deemed offensive to Islamic norms. At year's end, no action had been taken to enact the law.

CPJ continued to press the Kuwaiti government for the release of five journalists who remain in prison for their work with the Iraqi occupation newspaper Al-Nida. CPJ learned in November that one of the journalists, Jordanian national and former KUNA editor Abdel Rahman al-Husseini, was suffering from several ailments including heart disease and was at risk of a heart attack. In a December 14 letter to Kuwait's Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Saad al-Abdullah al-Sabah, CPJ urged for the release of al-Husseini and the other four imprisoned journalists – Usamah Suhail Abdallah Hussein, Fawwaz Muhammad al-Awadi Bessisso, Ahmad Abed Mustafa, and Ibtisam Berto Sulaiman al-Dakhil.

In Bahrain, the local press remained submissive – voluntarily censoring news of the country's ongoing political unrest, details of which remained largely off the pages of newspapers. Journalists who exhibited more independence provoked authorities' anger. The Ministry of Information banned Hafedh al-Sheikh, a columnist for the daily Akhbar al-Khaleej, from writing for local or international papers throughout much of the year. The ban stemmed from an article al-Sheikh submitted for publication in April titled, "When the Universities Fall in the Hands of the Tribal Militarist Mind," which indirectly criticized the state's meddling in universities.

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