Saudi Arabia: Press Freedom Behind Bars
As one of the world’s most restricted media domains, the suppression of press freedom in Saudi Arabia is all too common. The controls suggest that the Saudi government aims to suppress and shape its media coverage in order to silence criticisms made in relation to its domestic policies as well as those about the ongoing war in Yemen. The media has always been an essential public tool as a medium to foster national identity, educate the public and circulate government opinions. Sadly, the dominating influence of corruption in Saudi Arabia has cost its people freedom of expression. The Gryphon explores the repression of the media in Saudi Arabia and what this could mean for the future of journalism and liberty in the country.
On the 8th February 2018, Saleh al-Shehi, Saudi journalist for daily newspaper al-Watan, was sentenced to five years imprisonment with an additional five years travel ban after the completion of his sentence. His indictment was based on the grounds of insulting the royal court. With over a million Twitter followers, Saleh is deemed one of Saudi’s most prominent journalists and is known for speaking his mind and presenting daring criticisms.
On December 8th 2017, Saleh made an appearance on Rotana Channel’s show Yahalla, which incited a great deal of rage among the Saudi government. During the interview, Saleh touched on the prevalence of administrative corruption in the Royal Court, emphasising that they had violated public laws without paying close scrutiny to the regulations, as reported by Saudi news network, Midan News. When asked for the basis of his accusations, he claimed that citizens in contact with the Royal Court or those associated with it have the advantage of purchasing strategically located land which is otherwise not available to the public. In his column for al-Watan, Saleh has frequently reported on topics pertaining to the government’s spending decisions in regards to money recovered from a purported anti-corruption drive. He has also critiqued the government’s economic policies and its treatment of expat workers.
On 1 December 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that the Saudi authorities had imprisoned at least seven journalists during their crackdown on dissenters. They urged the Saudi Arabian authorities to release Saleh from detention and, furthermore, to ensure press freedom throughout the nation. Despite reassuring promises of a reform from Saudi Arabia’s emerging leadership, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, back in 2015, the incarceration of Saleh al-Shehi is evidential that repression of press freedom persists. Human Rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch continue to criticize the government for infringing upon people’s human rights.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who also serves as the Deputy Prime Minister, has launched a number of reforms since the royal bestowment by his father in 2015. The reforms were supposedly introduced to “foster economic and cultural diversity” but the Prince himself ordered the arrest of more than 200 people last year – princes, ministers and billionaires included. Most considered the crackdown to be an action of consolidation of power rather than a supposed measure of overcoming the kingdom’s endemic corruption. According to a news report, Saudi Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was arrested on the 9th November 2017 as part of the purported anti-corruption clampdown orchestrated by the Crown Prince. It was reported that the 63-year old prince, together with dozens of other princes and billionaires, was held incommunicado while enjoying the luxury suite in Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Alwaleed was recently declared free after two months of detention at a cost of $6 billion. However, he is reported to still be under house arrest and banned from leaving the country despite the heavy, undisclosed fee settlement with the government.
“The dominating influence of corruption in Saudi Arabia has cost its people freedom of expression”
In relation to the laws of Saudi Arabia, the Basic Law of Saudi Arabia 1992 (a.k.a. Basic System of Governance) consists of 83 articles. Not one guarantees press freedom. In fact, Article 39 of the Act, encompassing mass media, allows the authorities to inhibit any act that may lead to sedition or disunity.
The fact that the laws of Saudi Arabia do not assure the public of their freedom of expression is unsettling and serves to instil fear and terror in them. Regardless of whether the accusations against the government are factual, press freedom should not be compromised. Amid the crackdown in the country and the concurrent war in Yemen, it remains to be seen whether the matter of press freedom vulnerability will serve to further segregate Saudi Arabian citizens and instigate more chaos.