State of the media



The Saudi state has tremendous control over what is reported in Saudi media. Independent reporting on politics, the royal family or religion is absent. Despite the general lack of press freedom, the margins for Saudi papers have widened in recent years and the media publish news and opinions that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

 

 

William A. Rugh, Arab Mass Media (2004), characterizes the Saudi press as loyalist, meaning that “the newspapers are consistently loyal to and supportive of the regime in power despite the fact that they are privately owned.”

 

 

Written press

There are more than ten daily newspapers. Al-Riyadh is viewed as a semi-offical newspaper, while al-Watan is more outspoken. In general the content of all papers on important political issues is very similar. Two Saudi-owned London-based dailies, Al-Sharq al-Awsat and Al-Hayat, are read widely, but they also tend to respect taboos. While the print media are privately owned, they are subsidized and often under the patronage of a member of the royal family. Newspapers are created by royal decree. The government may appoint and discharge editors, they can sack journalists who publish articles considered morally or politically inappropriate. The government routinely censors newspapers and self-censorship among journalists is widespread. The Saudi Press Agency establishes the editorial line to be followed be the print media. Nevertheless, in the past few years the print media has started to report on sensitive issues, such as terrorism, corruption, and the religious police.

 

 

Audiovisual media

The government controls the Saudi broadcast media. There is no private radio or television broadcasting. Although it is illegal, satellite television is widespread and an important source of foreign news. In January 2004, the government launched a all- news satellite channel, Al-Ikhbariya, to compete with Al-Jazeera. Broadcast media face significant restrictions and exercise self-censorship.

 

 

Online media

Internet became available in Saudi Arabia in 1998 and is now widely available throughout the country. While there are about 22 Internet Service providers, all connections are routed through a state server. The Telecommunication and Information Technology Authority is to be responsible for licensing the internet service providers, filtering the internet, and registering Saudi domains. Some Internet users have turned to Internet services providers in surrounding countries in order to circumvent the restrictions on internet in Saudi Arabia.

 

The Internet Service Unit (ISU) acknowledges publicly that it bars access to nearly 400,000 sites with the aim of protecting citizens from content that is deemed morally or politically inappropriate. Bloggers are frequently blocked and Saudi bloggers have organized community action in response.

 

 

News agencies

The only news agency, Saudi Press Agency, is state-owned. The SPA is run by the Ministry of Information; its director is directly associated with the minister of information.

 

 

Media organizations

In 2003 the government created the Saudi Journalists Association with the purpose to "boost the role of the press and its message, and to grant journalists more confidence, security, and a sense of responsibility towards their country and people." In 2004 a nine-member board was elected, including five-editors-in-chief of the main Saudi newspapers and two women. The Ministry of Information registers all journalists and the Ministry must approve decisions of the Association. Most observers are skeptical that the Association will be an effective force for press freedom.

 

The Saudi Association for Media and Communication was founded in 2002 and has a membership of more than 1200 media experts and journalists. It organizes training courses for journalists, conferences, and symposia.

 

 

Media policies

Article 39 of the Basic Law of Government declares that “Information, publication, and all other media shall employ courteous language and the state's regulations, and they shall contribute to the education of the nation and the bolstering of its unity. All acts that foster sedition or division or harm the state's security and its public relations or detract from man's dignity and rights shall be prohibited. The statutes shall define all that.” The 1982 Royal Decree for Printed Material and Publications upholds freedom of expression, but forbids criticism of the royal family and the religious authorities. Violations are considered criminal offenses, punishable with prison sentences and fines. In 2002 a new press law was adopted. Although it was slightly more liberal, most of the original restrictions were upheld.

 

 

Media developments and trends

The media in Saudi Arabia have in recent years witnessed a gradual liberalization, due to the influence of satellite television and the Internet. After 9/11 2001 many observes linked Saudi terrorism to the lack of basic liberties in the kingdom. In response, the government has loosened its tight grip on the media. While the margins may have become wider, independent reporting is absent. Many critical Saudis and opposition groups have therefore turned to the Internet, and especially to blogging, in order to express their critical views and debate.