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Addressing freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia - a case of double standards by the UK?

jeudi 31 mars 2016 - 12:01pm

by Ann Harrison, Director, Freedom to Write Programme, PEN International

When asked about freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia, there is not much else to say other than ‘it hardly exists’.  Ranked as 164 out of 180 countries in Reporters without Borders press freedom index in 2015, there is what can broadly be described as a two-pronged approach to control any criticism of the government and ruling family: the first is a system of prior censorship of written materials so that people in Saudi Arabia cannot access information about political views, art, culture or religion that varies from that of the state. The second is a legal framework so broad and vague that any dissenting voices that do break through, particularly in the digital sphere, can be locked up, often tortured and put behind bars for years after unfair trials where judges have huge discretion over determining what is a crime and what the punishment should be.  In fact, it is often hard for anyone in Saudi Arabia to know in advance whether something they do is going to break the law or not.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s current role as Chair of the UN Human Rights Council’s panel of experts which selects candidates for appointment to human rights mechanisms, there is effectively no legal protection for freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia. There is no Constitution and the 1992 Basic Law does not provide protection for free speech but instead requires all media and publications to adhere to ‘good speech’ and the laws of the state, and explicitly prohibits them from publishing anything which harms national security or public relations or anything which leads to internal strife.  Saudi Arabia is not a party to key international human rights standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees the right to peaceful freedom of expression, though as a member of the United Nations it is bound by the Universal Declaration on Human Rights as part of customary international law.

The prior censorship rules under the 2003 Law on Printed Materials and Publications have led to foreign newspapers being circulated with articles blacked out, or pages stuck together.  In November 2013, booksellers were told to remove a popular science fiction book by Ibraheem Abbas, following a complaint that it was ‘blasphemous’ and promoted devil worship. The following year, over 10,000 copies of 420 books, including by the acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish were banned from the 2014 Riyadh Book Fair on the grounds that passages were ‘blasphemous’, the same fair which had destroyed the stall of the Arab Network for Research and Publishing, which focused on books about Saudi Arabia and Political Islam.

While it is much more difficult to prior censor online material, the Communications and Information Technology Commission is charged with monitoring and blocking a considerable amount of material, including political opposition, human rights and that which is deemed ‘anti-Islamic’. YouTube – a vehicle favoured by dissidents to circulate information about the country - is disliked by the authorities: some accounts have been blocked and there have been threats to block the whole system.

Digital surveillance has been described by Freedom House as ‘rampant’, with anyone using communications technology subject to government monitoring. Internet cafes are regulated – under-18s are not allowed in, they must close at midnight and their users are surveilled. SIM cards must be registered by fingerprinting on purchase, and encrypted phone calls and text messages are also viewed with suspicion. For example, Viber is banned and WhatsApp cannot be used to make phone calls.

While there has been a definite ramping up of repression since the 2011 Arab Spring, the Saudi authorities have long recognised the dangers posed by free access to the internet. Even before 2011, moved to limit internet freedom with the 2007 Anti-Cyber Crime law which provides harsh penalties for defamation or material that ‘harms public order, religious values [or] public morals’. This was compounded by the January 2011 Executive Regulations for Electronic Publishing Activity which brings online publications under the remit of the 2003 Publications law and require all online operators including website managers, discussion forums, blogs, personal websites and those publishing information via text messages or group emails to have a license or registration from the Ministry of the Interior. The 2014 Anti-Terrorism law – a reaction to the perceived threat of unrest in the wake of the Arab Spring - designates as ‘terrorist offences’ non-violent acts such as ‘insulting the reputation of the state’, ‘harming public order’, ‘shaking the security of the state’, calling for atheist thought in any form and support for banned groups by circulating their material in any form are all designated as ‘terrorist  offences’ and has increasingly been used to prosecute and imprison activists disseminating their views on social media.

In this extremely restrictive environment, for those who do speak out regardless, the risks are high.  There has been considerable international outrage against the convictions of blogger Raif Badawi, (who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for founding the ‘Liberal Saudi network’ – an online blog discussing politics and liberalism, and is still facing 950 lashes in addition to the 50 he has already received) and poet Ashraf Fayadh, a Palestinian born and brought up in Saudi Arabia, whose death sentence for alleged ‘apostasy’ passed in November 2015 was commuted to an eight-year prison term and 800 lashes.

But behind these two emblematic cases are other writers also serving long prison terms for peacefully expressing their views:

  • Waleed Abu al-Khair, Badawi’s lawyer and a commentator on legal and human rights issues, is serving a 15-year sentence after conviction of vaguely-worded charges under the Anti-Terrorism Law for his peaceful activism including comments to news outlets and on Twitter criticising human rights violations.
  • Activist Samar Badawi (Raif Badawi’s sister and ex-wife of Waleed Abu al-Khair) was briefly detained earlier this year, apparently for having posted to a Twitter account used to campaign for her husband’s release.
  • Blogger and human rights activist Fadel al-Manasef is serving a 14-year prison term for exercising his right to freedom of expression including by publishing articles online.
  • Prominent writer, commentator and critic Zuhair Kutbi, arrested in July 2015, is serving a two-year prison sentence (with another two years suspended) and a 15-year ban on writing and giving interviews. The court also ordered his Twitter account to be closed.
  • Journalist Alaa Brinji, detained since May 2014, is on trial for alleged ‘apostasy’, ‘calling for secularist thought’, ’inciting the public against the rulers of the country and attempting to tarnish the country’s reputation’, ’ridiculing Islamic religious figures’ and ’violating Article 6 of the Anti-Cyber Crime Law’. The charges relate to his posts on Twitter, some of which call for freedom of religion or support human or women’s rights activists.
  • Dissident Sudanese journalist Walid El-Hussein, who has long reported on corruption and human rights violations in Sudan, was detained between July 2015 and March 2016 for unclear reasons, amid fears that he could be returned to Sudan where he would risk arrest and torture.
  • Others are facing imprisonment and lashes such as writer and activist Mikhlif al-Shammari, whose sentence of two years’ imprisonment and 200 lashes was confirmed on appeal in November 2015.

Nor does Saudi Arabia confine its repressive activities to within its own borders.  While Kuwait is top of the league of prosecutions of people using Twitter to express themselves, it is notable that in several of the cases, prosecutions result from complaints brought by the Embassy of Saudi Arabia. For example, in September 2015, four Kuwaiti citizens went on trial on charges of ‘harming state security’ by insulting a friendly nation. Three of them were tried for ‘insulting’ Saudi Arabia on Twitter - Saleh Saeed, novelist Rania Al-Saad and lawyer Khaled Al-Shatti.

One final note – the Saudi authorities go to considerable lengths to preserve their image abroad – reportedly channelling funds to media organisations all over the world in exchange for positive coverage.  And there is an active community of Saudi Arabian trolls, believed to be part of a state-employed ‘electronic army’, promoting a pro-government message and possibly more.  I have had first-hand experience of this kind of activity, receiving my first death threat on Twitter when I was in Geneva attending the UPR of Saudi Arabia in 2013 and tweeting about the proceedings.

What are the reasons behind the increase in persecution in recent years?  In addition to the Arab Spring, the thaw in relations between the West and Iran, with the successful conclusion of the nuclear negotiations, is perceived as a threat to Saudi Arabia’s stability by the authorities, particularly in the context of the Shia’-Sunni fault line encapsulated in the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq and the struggle for the hearts and minds of the Islamic World.

But criticism by the West, including the UK, has been largely muted with Saudi Arabia touted as a key ally in the Middle East. However this, and the argument of the defence of economic interests, such as the Saudi purchase of Western weapons, to the tune of billions of pounds a year,  sit uncomfortably with the current UK Foreign Office strategy of promoting freedom of expression on the grounds that a more stable world is achieved by upholding universal rights in tackling conflict and extremism, as well as  European policies to support human rights defenders.

There are the beginnings of a change of view. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia by the UK are now under scrutiny by UK parliament, and the Netherlands has become the first EU nation to vote to ban weapons sales to the Kingdom, following a (non-binding) resolution by the European Parliament in February 2016 calling for such a ban.  What else can be done to foster a more open climate for freedom of expression in the country?

  • Individual cases of writers in prison should be raised with the Saudi authorities at all opportunities – the fact that Raif Badawi has not received more lashes and Ashraf Fayadh’s death sentence was commuted is evidence that pressure can work
  • Use economic levers to press for reform – the recent IMF study which predicted that the Kingdom could be bankrupt within four years if it does not rein in spending is an ideal opportunity to make a case for greater respect for human rights
  • Member states of the UN Human Rights Council should use the election to assess candidly the shortcomings of these—and all—candidates’ human rights records and to encourage them to undertake concrete steps for improvement. For the credibility of the Council and the elections process, states should elect only states whose domestic human rights records demonstrate commitment to the “highest standards” of human rights. They should decline to support candidates with abusive human rights records such as Saudi Arabia. Invest in the cultural sector.  The Saudi publishing industry is currently worth some US$3.6 billion annually, less than 1% of GDP.  In most EU countries it constitutes around 2-3%.  The sharing of culture and ideas  is at the heart of the PEN Charter as fundamental to freedom of expression and to a good world order; ensuring Saudi writers and artists can attend cultural events around the world will in the long term help to change the nature of debate in the kingdom
  • Engage with the Ministry of Education to reform the school curriculum, and in particular its textbooks which are exported to Islamic schools all over the world, to ensure that they promote tolerance and respect for all, whatever their colour, creed or political beliefs.

A version of this article was presented to a meeting of the UK All-Party Parliamentary Human Rights Group on 23 March 2016