Saudi Arabia has enacted stringent new regulations forcing some bloggers to obtain government licenses and to strongarm others into registering. In addition, all Saudi news blogs and electronic news sites will now be strictly licensed, required to “include the call to the religion of Islam” and to strictly abide by Islamic sharia law. The registration and religion requirements are also being coupled with strict restrictions on what topics Saudi bloggers can write on--a development which will essentially give Saudi authorities the right to shut down blogs at their discretion.
The new regulations went into effect on January 1, 2011.
What the new regulations center around is a legal redefinition of almost all online content created in Saudi Arabia. Blogs are now legally classified as “electronic publishing” and news blogs (the term is not explicitly defined in the Saudi law) are now subject to the same legal regulations as newspapers. All Saudi Arabia-based news blogs, internet news sites, “internet sites containing video and audio materials” and Saudi Area-created mobile phone/smartphone content will fall under the newspaper rubric as well.
Under the regulations, any operators of news blogs, mobile phone content creators or operators of news sites in Saudi Arabia have to be Saudi citizens, at least 20 years old and possess a high school degree.
At least 31% of Saudi Arabia residents do not possess citizenship; these range from South Asian migrants living in poor conditions to well-off Western oil workers. All of them will find their internet rights sharply curtailed as a result of the new regulations.
The most telling--and dangerous-- detail in the new Saudi regulations is a provision requiring all news bloggers to provide the Saudi Arabian government with detailed information on their hosting company. This could easily allow the Saudi Arabian government to block access to a particular website across domains or to even force hosting companies to take dissidents' websites offline.
Non-citizens will still be allowed to blog on non-news topics. However, all Saudi Arabian bloggers--both citizens and non-citizens--are “recommended” to register with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture and Information. In addition, blogs are now defined as falling under the Saudi Press and Publications Law.
This requires all publications created in Saudi Arabia to “include the call to the religion of Islam,” not to “violate the Islamic Shari'a rulings,” or to compromise national security or “public order.”
Posters on online forums, internet users who communicate on listservs and guests in online chat rooms are also “recommended” to register with the government under the law.
While the registration process is optional, it will serve as a likely coercion tool in the case of websites or blogs targeted by Saudi authorities. The regulations strictly classify and offer a bureaucratic taxonomy for all online media in a country with one of the most extensive censorship regimes in the world.
Arabic speakers can find a copy of the new laws as a Word document provided by the Saudi Arabian government.
The Saudi Arabian government has a long history of jailing bloggers who write about politics, corruption or religion. Now the situation may even get worse.The story itself is evidence of the difference between a closed society and an open one.
It took twelve full days for the existence of these laws to make it to the Western media!
Any new law that is even contemplated in Western nations must go through at least somewhat of a transparent process. But this Saudi law was already on the books for nearly two weeks!
This is exactly why major human rights organizations need to be concentrating on closed societies rather than open ones. The open ones have checks and balances built in to limit the possibility of abuse. They have robust media, reasonably fair judicial systems and entire arms of the government meant to audit and check the powers of other government agencies.
But places like Saudi Arabia can crack down on basic personal freedoms without any worries. Here is a case where they did exactly that.
Human Rights Watch did mention it, to its credit, but it still took a week after the law was introduced.
(Correction: I hadn't seen the HRW article in my search; commenter Gabriel found it so I corrected the post that had said they didn't.)