Saudi Arabia May Have Freed ‘Blasphemous’ Journalist But The Press Remains Chained

by
Sameera Ehteram
“On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more…” These lines got Hamza Kashgari into serious trouble and landed him in jail.

“On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more…”These lines got Hamza Kashgari into serious trouble and landed him in jail.

Hamza Kashgari, a young Saudi blogger, wrote these lines in a poem addressed to the Muslim Prophet, Mohammad.

He apologized publically, but the sentiment against him held strong, with people and religious leaders asking that he be given the death penalty. On the other hand, there were some voices asking for his release and he finally gained freedom earlier this week after two years of incarceration.

However, the relief over his release was overshadowed by the arrest of yet another journalist, Tariq al-Mubarak, who was reportedly held by the police for supporting thoseSaudi women that openly opposed the driving ban against them.

As Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), very rightly said, "Saudi authorities are retaliating against people who want a very basic right for women - the right to get behind the wheel and drive themselves where they want to go."

Things have never been easy for Saudi journalists. However, reforms introduced after King Abdullah Ibn Abdulaziz al-Saud came to the throne did ease media censorship - but apparently not enough.

Neither the reforms nor the journalists’ union has been able to give the media an independent and free voice.

In fact, a special government commission was set up in 2007 to filter the Internet to “protect Saudi society” from “terrorism”, “fraud”, “pornography“, “defamation” or “violation of religious values”.

Almost overnight, more than 400,000 websites were officially blocked and bloggers as well as journalist pressurized.

In 2012, the Kingdom adopted a new law confining the practice of journalism to journalists recognized by the Saudi Journalists Association (not a member of the International Federation of Journalists) and transforming the association into a governmental body. It meant that journalists had to request membership of the association to make their work legitimate.

So, while it bound registered journalists into the codes of conduct laid down by the Kingdom, it left independent journalists and bloggers hanging high and dry.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior appoints the editors of the sixteen newspapers that are published in the country.

In April, Iman Al-Qahtani, a prominent Saudi journalist and human rights defender, finally relented to unyielding pressure from security forces and closed her popular Twitter account. With over 73,000 followers, Al Qahtani’s account was a significant source of information for many in Saudi Arabia.

According to Saudi Arabia’s official media policy, “the press should be a tool to educate the masses, propagate government views, and promote national unity. Avoiding criticism of the royal family, Islam, or religious authorities is an unwritten policy that is followed routinely.”

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