Intolerant of criticism, in the last few years the government has been enforcing harsh censorship through the use of extended filtering bolstered by repressive legislation and widespread online surveillance (see the Saudi Arabia chapter of the 2011 “Enemies of the Internet” report).
The authorities resorted to blocking websites created in the aftermath of the demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt which relay the protestors’ demands, such as Dawlaty.info and Saudireform.com. An online petition was circulated to openly call for the King to initiate political reform. Despite the censorship, it was signed by several hundred people – activists, writers and academics – and posted on Twitter, thanks to the hashtag #saudimataleb.
The authorities intensified their crackdown on forums and social networks, anticipating demonstrations held in several of the Kingdom’s cities on 11 March, redubbed the “Day of Rage.” Facebook’s “Revolutionary Nostalgia" page, which echoes the calls for reform, was added to the long list of URLs rendered inaccessible in the country. NGO Amnesty International’s website was blocked after publication of an anti-terrorist draft law aimed at repressing even more severely criticisms of the royal family.
Attempt to impose a blackout on protests in eastern Saudi Arabia
The authorities tried to impose a total media blackout on protests in the governorate of Al-Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, which has a majority Shiite population, raising the spectre of religious unrest to justify the repression. Several demonstrators were shot and killed. Even foreign journalists with visas were stopped and questioned while covering protests in the town of Hofuf, also in the eastern part of the country. It was netizens – sometimes at the risk of life – who circulated news about these events online. Bloggers Mustafa Al-Mubarak and Hussein Al-Hashim, known for their Web-based activities, were arrested in April 2011 and their computers confiscated. They were later released. However, writer Nazir Al-Majid, who in April had published an article entitled “I protest, therefore I am a human being” on the news website rasid.com, is still in prison. So are Fadil Al-Manasef and Hussein Al-Youssef, as well as writer and reformer Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham Al-Shammari. Detained since June 2010, he may be facing “terrorism” charges. His state of health has grown considerably worse.
Avoid any risk of “social destabilisation”
Special measures have been taken to avoid any risk of “social destabilisation” in a troubled regional conjuncture, despite promises made by the King in March 2011 to grant billions of dollars in subsidies to improve the Saudis’ working and housing conditions, as well as their health coverage. Three online TV journalists were arrested in October 2011 and held for several days after the “Malub Aleyna” show broadcast a report on the living conditions of the poorest inhabitants of the Saudi capital. The programme’s online video has been viewed over 500,000 times. Radio Nederland’s Internet website was blocked after it featured an article on the poor treatment of immigrants in Saudi Arabia.
Another evidence of Saudi Arabia’s implacable intolerance of freedom of expression : Hamza Kashgari, a young journalist, was arrested after expressing his personal views online. He is facing a possible death sentence for three tweets which the Saudi authorities regard as blasphemous.
In the last few months, the fight for women’s rights has been waged mainly online – the only news and mobilisation platform for such issues – from the “Women2Drive” campaign promoting the right of women to drive launched on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (one of its organizers was arrested for filming herself while driving), to the Baladi campaign for women’s right to vote. The latter ended in triumph: women have won the right to vote in the 2015 elections. This victory is all the more significant in that it occurred at a time of widespread loss of individual freedoms.