By Rob L. Wagner
February 7, 2011
As more young Saudis embrace social media to effect change in Saudi Arabia, worrisome signs are developing that could silence these new voices.
The Egyptian anti-government uprising demonstrated that Saudi youth could rally online in solidarity with their Arab brothers and sisters. Bloggers were also at the vanguard of demands for accountability when Jeddah’s poor infrastructure led to the deaths of more than 100 people as a result of flooding.
In January, however, the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information issued new electronic media regulations, which become effective this month, that require licenses for online newspapers. The new regulations are likely to raise concerns for bloggers who have made great gains in public expression.
Initially, Western media erroneously reported that bloggers would also be licensed, setting off widespread condemnation from media watchdog and human rights organizations. The ministry’s new regulations, in fact, say nothing of the sort, but allow for “voluntary” blogging licenses.
Abdulrahman Al-Hazzaa, domestic media supervisor for the ministry, addressed voluntary licensing last September when he said the government “only encourages bloggers and others to register.”
“We are not putting it in our mind to license them,” he told reporters at the time. “There are so many we cannot control them.”
The backlash over licensing online news sites is a little overwrought. Saudi Arabia licenses all of its print and broadcast media outlets, so it seems to be behind the curve in finally developing regulations for online news organizations.
Licensing of online news groups will have little impact because it applies the same standards followed by Saudi print and broadcast outlets. The online newspaper Al-Wi’am’s editor-in-chief, Fahad Al-Harithi, welcomes it. He told Saudi reporters recently the regulations will “protect” his website’s intellectual rights.
Yet the problem is how the ministry’s regulations define blogging. According to the ministry’s final draft, blogging “consists of diaries, articles and personal experiences, or description of an event. This could be through text, audio or video applications.”
It’s unknown whether blog websites that republish Arab and Western news from various sources fit the definition of an online news outlet.
The personal musings of a young Saudi man or woman are not likely to generate much interest among ministry officials. But the regulations are vague enough to put in the ministry’s sights blogs that republish news articles and then editorialize on the content.
The ministry defines online news outlets has having a fixed web address and publishing regularly scheduled news articles, photos and videos. The same definition could apply to blogs. Given the fuzzy line between online news sites and some news-oriented blogs, the ministry could consider a blog an online news outlet whenever it wishes. Further, licensed news organizations are subject to censorship. Although the ministry will not censor unlicensed bloggers, website owners remain accountable for their content and face prosecution over material deemed objectionable by the government.
On the flip side, the regulations could provide unexpected—and perhaps to the Saudi government, unwelcome—benefits for bloggers who voluntarily obtain a license. If bloggers receive licenses, the question rises whether they can share the same playing field as online news organizations with access to government press conferences and perform reporting duties. Simply, does licensing bloggers provide the same rights and protection as an online newspaper? While Western governments and political groups now routinely grant press credentials for bloggers, there is no such practice in Saudi Arabia. However, the ministry’s regulations are so vague that it could leave the door open for licensed bloggers to attend the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ news conferences whenever a dignitary visits the Kingdom and has something to say.
Another troubling aspect of the regulations is the ministry’s requirement that only Saudi nationals and expatriates over the age of 20 with a high school or higher education and “of good conduct and behavior” are eligible for a license. This part of the law should give pause to any news website. Consider that someone, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Ministry of Culture and Information, will decide who is a person of “good conduct.” It also means that teenagers with a budding sense of civic responsibility have no outlet for their voices.
There are enough holes in the regulations to dampen social discourse among news-driven bloggers who previously enjoyed some latitude in criticizing public institutions, but now don’t know where they stand. Some Saudi blogs may go dark and others could lose their zing because they must take care not to annoy bureaucrats with too many complaints about the government.
It’s unlikely Saudi bloggers have any interest in licensing because it puts them on the ministry’s radar and it will inevitably lead to restrictions. However, some websites may have no choice if the ministry applies its loose definition of an online news outlet to them.
Al-Hazzaa acknowledges the impossible task of enforcing licensing regulations on bloggers. Regulating Saudi websites based outside the Kingdom is impossible other than to block the site. But that is the least of the ministry’s problems. As some Saudis shift their attention from blogging about their social lives to political commentary and news events, the ministry is in the uncomfortable position to either leave bloggers alone or give them a license and the same latitude as the news websites.