Saudi Arabia cracks down on social media

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

November 24, 2014

When we looked at internet freedom in Saudi Arabia last year, we noted that,

Saudi Arabia has some of the most draconian internet censorship and surveillance measures in the world, backed up by some potentially very harsh penalties for opinions expressed online that it doesn’t like.

US-based civil rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) has now published a report on how the Saudi authorities are further cracking down on internet users who express dissenting political views using Twitter and other social media platforms.

These prosecutions show just how sensitive the Saudi authorities have become to the ability of ordinary citizens to voice opinions online that the government considers controversial or taboo. Instead of pursuing their peaceful online critics, Saudi officials would be better employed in carrying out much-needed reforms.

Cases highlighted by HRW include:

  • Three judges who have been sentenced to jail for tweeting dissatisfaction at the Justice Ministry’s treatment of a fellow judge, who was himself disciplined (Google translate) for criticizing the Justice Ministry on Twitter. The judges are currently on bail while they await their appeal, although they have previously paid a fine of one million riyals ($266,666 USD) each for substantially the same tweets.
  • One of the judges faces additional charges of ‘attacking the Sharia judicial system and its independence, and undermining its authority by interfering in the [disciplinary] proceedings of Judge Mohammed Al Abdulkareem.’ This judge was sentenced to 8 years in prison, and a 10 year travel ban outside Saudi Arabia.
  • Earlier this year another lawyer was sentenced to 15 years in prison for peacefully criticizing the government’s human rights record.
  • A civil rights activist was arrested in October on charges of ‘insulting the messenger and the hadith’, of tweeting criticism of the government, and calling for to Saudi women to be allowed to drive (she remains in prison at this time).
  • Just this month another prominent human rights activist was sentenced ‘to two years in prison and 200 lashes for, in part, visiting prominent Shia figures in the eastern province as a goodwill gesture in the Sunni-dominated country’.

HRW lays much of the blame for these prosecutions at the door of ‘vague provisions of a 2007 anti-cybercrime law to charge and try Saudi citizens for peaceful tweets and social media comments,’ noting that,

Article 6 criminalizes “producing something that harms public order, religious values, public morals, the sanctity of private life, or authoring, sending, or storing it via an information network,” and imposes penalties of up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Saudi Riyals (US$800,000).

It then urgently recommends that,

The Saudi cabinet should urgently amend the law to revise or strike out vague provisions that allow criminal justice officials to improperly curtail peaceful online expression.

HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director, Sarah Leah Whitson, concludes her report with a sharp rebuke for the Saudi government,

Saudi authorities are intimidating, imprisoning, and silencing activists as part of their all-out assault on peaceful criticism, but they are seriously mistaken if they think they can indefinitely block Saudi citizens from using social and other media to push for positive reforms.

We would like to remind readers living in Saudi Arabia that using VPN (when combined with other common sense measures to protect your identity) is highly effective means of being able to express your opinions online without personal danger to yourself (and is also an highly effective means of evading the pervasive censorship imposed by the Saudi government).

VPN itself is not banned or blocked in Saudi Arabia, and is consequently very popular there. To find a good provider, and to read a discussion on other censorship issues affecting the Kingdom, check out our article on ‘5 Best VPNs for Saudi Arabia’.

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