Independent media are non-existent in Saudi Arabia, and Saudi journalists live under heavy surveillance, even when abroad. The number of imprisoned journalists and bloggers has tripled since 2017.
Virtually all Saudi media operate under direct official control. Self-censorship is ever-present, including on social networks. Even privately owned Saudi media follow government guidelines set out by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA). The press is divided into two main camps: the Al-Watan and Okaz dailies represent the tendency considered “liberal”, while Al-Riyadh leads the conservative side.
For media outlets belonging to the royal family, self-censorship is the rule. Other media are required to submit to daily oversight by censors from the Ministry of Information. Journalists who criticise the country’s role in the war in Yemen, or who oppose normalisation of relations with Israel, are considered traitors. Those who prefer to stay neutral and who do not follow the official line of praise for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman become de facto suspects.
The penal code, and anti-terrorism and cyber-crime laws allow imprisonment or suspension of journalists who venture any criticism, on grounds of “blasphemy”, “inciting chaos”, “jeopardising national unity”, or “harming the image and reputation of the king and the state”. Since 2018, the government has been tightening its grip on social networks.
Saudi media are, for the most part, financed by the kingdom or those close to ruling circles. The MBC group, which owns Al Arabiya, enjoys ample resources, and its influence extends beyond the country’s borders. Many star journalists are flourishing in sports journalism, which is very popular, or in coverage of cultural events.
The cases of Raif Badawi and Ali Abulohoom, each convicted for having published comments online that were deemed to constitute apostasy, are emblematic of the tension between press freedom and respect for religious edicts in the Wahhabi kingdom. Women’s rights are also a taboo subject that can lead to the arrest, trial and torture of activists, journalists and bloggers who take a stand on the issue.
Most journalists who are imprisoned were put behind bars arbitrarily. “Electronic brigades” that are active on social networks hunt and harass journalists. The kingdom also uses high-tech espionage tools to monitor journalists in exile.