The Saudi blogosphere is not as active as other online platforms for political discussion in the country. For example, while there are an estimated 10,000 Saudi bloggers, many more Saudis use Facebook. There are more female than male bloggers in Saudi Arabia, and most bloggers tend to focus on personal matters rather than local politics. However, online public discussion forums have always been popular, and their effect has been quite significant. These online communities have continued to receive unmatched attention even after the emergence of social-networking and blog-hosting applications. The forums give ordinary individuals from all backgrounds the opportunity to express themselves and get their messages across even to the country’s leadership. It is believed that the king fired several ministers for negligence, corruption, or incompetence in 2009 based on evidence posted on Al-Saha al-Siyasia,18 the most popular online political forum in Saudi Arabia.
Countless other incidents have demonstrated the ability of online commentators to steer the government’s attention to particular problems.
Sites like YouTube and Facebook provide additional media platforms with minimal government control. Saudis used YouTube very effectively during major floods in Jeddah in 2009, which resulted in 120 deaths. They not only posted hundreds if not thousands of videos capturing the tragedy as it occurred, but also demanded action from the authorities.
The CITC block-request form is available at http://www.internet.gov.sa/resources/block-unblockrequest/block/viewset_language=en.
The CITC unblock request form is available at http://www.internet.gov.sa/resources/block-unblock-request/unblock/.
CITC, Internet Usage in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: Individuals.
Agence France-Presse, “Saudi Reshuffle Puts Woman in Ministry,” Australian, February 16, 2009, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/saudi-reshuffle-puts-woman-in-ministry/story-e6frg6tx-1111118859647; Al-Saha alSiyasia is located at http://www.alsaha.com/sahat/4.
SAUDI ARABIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net In response, the king immediately established a commission to investigate the disaster, which was apparently an unprecedented move. While YouTube was credited with exposing the scandal of the floods,19 many Saudis then used Facebook to organize themselves and assist with rescue efforts, taking an important step toward greater civic and political activism in the country.Al-Saha al-Siyasia is not accessible from inside Saudi Arabia because of the sensitive nature of the topics discussed on it, and particular pages on YouTube and Facebook are also blocked. The sites nevertheless mean a great deal to many Saudis due to the dearth of other channels for free expression.
VIOLATIONS OF USER RIGHTS Saudi Arabia’s basic law contains language that provides for freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but only within certain boundaries. The 2000 Law of Print and Press addresses freedom of expression issues, but it largely consists of restrictions rather than protections.
The government treats online journalists writing for newspapers and other formal news outlets the same as print and broadcast journalists, subjecting them to close supervision.
Bloggers and online commentators who write under pseudonyms face special scrutiny from the authorities, who attempt to identify and punish them for critical or controversial remarks. Online writers are often arrested and detained without specific charges, though it is frequently clear which views offended the government. The Ministry of Interior, headed by Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, has generally enjoyed impunity for abuses against bloggers and online commentators.
In response to a series of hacking attacks, including one on the Ministry of Labor in 2008,21 the government has enacted laws that criminalize a range of internet-based offenses.
The vaguely worded legislation assigns jail sentences and fines for defamation; unauthorized interception of private e-mail messages; hacking a website to deface, destroy, modify, or deny access to it; or simply publishing or accessing data that is “contrary to the state or its system.” Many online commentators have been imprisoned under these laws after harshly criticizing the government or expressing support for terrorism.
Critical journalism is not tolerated in the country. In July 2008, when the editor in chief of a local newspaper asked Prince Naif a question that contained implicit criticism of Amira al-Hussaini, “Saudi Arabia: The Jeddah Floodings on Video,” Global Voices, December 17, 2009, http://globalvoicesonline.org/2009/12/17/saudi-arabia-the-jeddah-floodings-on-video/.
Paul Handley, “Outraged Saudis Blast Govt after Deadly Jeddah Flood,” Agence France-Presse, November 28, 2009, available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5ji17eEs80JpewJ4n0Py-7gQY5UTA.
“Unemployed Man Hacks into Ministry of Labor and Parliament and Asks Private Sector to Employ Him,” Al-Madina, September 3, 2008 (in Arabic).
SAUDI ARABIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net the religious police, the prince scolded him and he resigned the following day.22 Anonymous online commentators commonly make defamatory remarks; while only a few choose to press charges against writers who publicly vilify them, it is understood that the government could arrest those writing from inside the country. In September 2010, the government announced its intent to require all online publishers and media, including bloggers and online forums, to obtain a license from the government.23 The spokesperson of the Minister of Information and Culture claimed that the measure was necessary to curb defamation and libel.
Surveillance is rampant in Saudi Arabia. Everyone using communication technology is subject to government monitoring, which is aimed at protecting national security and maintaining social order. The authorities regularly monitor websites, blogs, chat rooms, as well as the content of e-mail and mobile-phone text messages. Users are not able to purchase mobile phones anonymously. They are legally required to use their real names or register with the government, and the authorities can obtain identification data without a court order or similar legal process.
The short-lived ban on BlackBerry service in August 2010, which ended when the government obtained the means to access the devices’ encrypted messages, clearly suggested that all other electronic media were already under the watchful eye of the authorities.Moreover, the blocking of the Twitter pages of two human rights activists, Khaled alNasser and Walid Abdelkhair, on August 20, 2009, demonstrated the government’s diligence in restricting content, as Twitter is not particularly popular in Saudi Arabia.
Dozens if not hundreds of alleged extremists have been arrested after apparently drawing the authorities’ attention through activity on online forums. The Ministry of Interior is believed to be the main government body responsible for monitoring extremist content. The resulting arrests without formal charges mean that detainees cannot defend themselves or secure legal representation. Some online commentators have reported that the authorities confiscated their computers and never returned them.
In addition to direct government monitoring, access providers are also required to monitor their customers and supply the authorities with information about their online activities. On April 16, 2009, the Ministry of Interior made it mandatory for internet cafes to install hidden cameras and provide identity records for their customers. The new security regulations also barred anyone under 18 years of age from using internet cafes. All internet cafes were ordered to close by midnight, and police were instructed to visit the businesses to ensure compliance. These measures were ostensibly designed to crack down on internet “Prince Naif Responds to the ‘Spiteful’ Journalist Ahmed al-Yousef,” YouTube, July 4, 2008, video, http://www.youtube.com/watchv=RB4JnaK-LZY&feature=related.
Alexia Tsotsis,“Saudi Arabians Will Soon Need a License to Blog,” TechChrunch, September 23, 2010, http://techcrunch.com/2010/09/23/saudi-arabians-will-soon-need-a-license-to-blog/#.
Reuters, “BlackBerry Agrees to Give Saudi Arabia Subscribers’ Codes.” SAUDI ARABIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net use by extremists, but in practice they allow the police to deter any activity that the government may find objectionable.
Several media websites and portals have been subject to cyber attacks in recent years.
The website of the satellite television station Al-Arabiya was attacked in 2009 by a hacker seeking retribution for content deemed offensive to Shiites. The website of the newspaper Al-Watan was hacked twice in 2009 because of its criticism of religious scholars. Even highprofile online commentators’ pages and forum accounts have been hacked. The Facebook pages of the prolific Saudi judge Eisa al-Ghaith have been disrupted several times. The forum account of well-known progovernment commentator Al-Bahbahari has also been hacked by critics of his loyalist stance.
Online commentators who express support for extremism or liberal ideals, call for strikes, argue in favor of the rights of Shiites and other minorities, call for political reform, or expose human rights violations are perceived as threats by the regime. Although data on the exact number of those arrested are not publicly available, several prominent bloggers and activists are known to have been detained in recent years. In 2007, the Ministry of Interior arrested the popular blogger Fuad al-Farhan because of his consistent advocacy for political reforms. He was released in April 2008. Between 2008 and 2009, the Ministry of Interior arrested bloggers including Youssef Ashmawy, Raafat al-Ghanim, Roshdi Algadir, Mohammed Otaibi, and Khaled al-Omair; most of these individuals have since been released. Munir al-Jassas, a Saudi activist and defender of the rights of Shiites, remains behind bars after being arrested on November 7, 2009. Another defender of the Shiite minority, Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari, has been in custody since June 15, 2010, when he was arrested for criticizing political and religious leaders.
SAUDI ARABIA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net SOUTH AFRICA 2009 POPULATION: 49.9 million INTERNET FREEDOM Free Free INTERNET PENETRATION: 9 percent STATUS WEB 2.0 APPLICATIONS BLOCKED: No Obstacles to Access 7 SUBSTANTIAL POLITICAL CENSORSHIP: No Limits on Content 8 BLOGGERS/ONLINE USERS ARRESTED: Yes Violations of User Rights 9 PRESS FREEDOM STATUS: Partly Free Total 24 INTRODUCTION Digital media freedom is generally respected in South Africa. Political content is not censored, and bloggers are not prosecuted for online activities. Access to the internet has improved; in fact, more people have an option to access the internet from their mobile telephones than from computers. Nevertheless, the majority of the population is unable to benefit from internet access due to high costs and the fact that most content is in English, an obstacle for those who speak only local languages. There are increasing concerns about laws and legal cases, as well as disciplinary cases in the workplace that may negatively affect digital media freedom, although the courts have been reluctant to infringe on this freedom.
The first internet connection in South Africa was established in 1988, when an email link was set up by academics using the FidoNet mailing system, followed by a Unix-to-Unix Copy (UUCP) gateway. The early days of networking were driven by the Foundation for Research Development and a loose grouping of individuals in various universities.1 The internet diffused rapidly among the country’s technologically advanced elite, especially once it was commercialized from 1993 onwards. By the mid 1990’s, South Africa ranked higher in internet usage than other countries at comparable levels of development. Today, South Africa maintains the greatest level of internet penetration in the region, although from a global perspective, the overall level of access is quite modest.
Lawrie, M. ‘The history of the internet in South Africa: how it began’, http://www.aug.co.za/PPTFiles/The%20History%20of%20the%20Internet%20in%20South%20Africa.pdf, accessed 17/08/2010.
SOUTH AFRICA FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net OBSTACLES TO ACCESS Access to the internet has steadily improved in South Africa despite the obstacles that remain, and options for access are proliferating rapidly. It is estimated that about five million people, or 10 percent of the population, have access, and the penetration rate accelerated in 2008 and 2009. This growth has been attributed to the completion in mid-2009 of the new Seacom undersea cable, the granting of Electronic Communications Network Service licenses to more than 400 organizations since a landmark August 2008 court ruling that value-added network service (VANS) providers can self-provide facilities, and the continued uptake of broadband services by small and medium-sized businesses.Prices remain a significant barrier to internet access, especially for users of prepaid services. The cost of dial up subscription varies from 40 to 180 South African rands (approx.
US$5 to US$24), whereas ADSL subscription is between 50 and 200 rands (approx. US$to US$27). Those with access, especially broadband access, are concentrated in urban areas.
However, after years of stifled competition, the market is slowly opening up, and it is expected that costs will drop even further thanks to the arrival of the Seacom cable and the completion of the East African Submarine System (Eassy) cable, as well as the increasing use of updated mobile-telephone technology and the laying of new fiber-optic cable within and between cities.3 In fact, although the overall figures remain very low,4 the number of South Africans accessing the internet through a broadband connection has grown by more than percent since March 2009,5 and wireless broadband access has grown by 88 percent in the same period.6 Telkom SA, a partly stated-owned company, retains a near monopoly in providing broadband access via ADSL, though the recent licensing of a second national operator, Neotel, should increase competition. In March 2010, the internet-service provider (ISP) M-Web launched an uncapped ADSL offering, unleashing a price war in the ADSL market. World Wide Worx, “SA Internet Growth Accelerates,” news release, January 14, 2010, http://www.worldwideworx.com/archives/234, accessed June 4, 2010.
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