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Saudi Crackdown on Bloggers Is More Subtle, Sinister Than Mere Licenses

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The first rule of running an unfree society is to never to let your bureaucrats appear on camera. When Saudi Arabian Ministry of Culture and Information undersecretary Abdul Rahman al-Hazzaa appeared on Arabic-language news network al-Arabiya for a short interview on Thursday, September 23, the goal was to put a positive spin on a new electronic media law. Instead, al-Hazzaa sparked a media furor after his comments implied Saudi Arabian bloggers would be required to register with their government.

As explained by al-Hazzaa, the new electronic media law would give the Saudi government sweeping powers to monitor the Internet. Walaa Hawari of the Arab News reported that the undersecretary said he was going to treat any Internet content—including personal blogs and forum posts—the same as printed matter, which the kingdom subjects to strict censorship and monitoring.

Techcrunch reported that Saudi Arabians "would soon need a license to blog." But they won't. Saudi Arabia's new electronic laws are less draconian than reported‚ and much more frightening.

Rather than strictly clamping down on the dissemination of news and opposition voices, the Saudi government is enacting a series of subtle restrictions that will allow authorities to go after news- and current events-obsessed bloggers. While blogs will not be required to register outright, they may instead be arbitrarily subjected to increased scrutiny and monitoring.

According to a subsequent interview by al-Hazzaa, the new law will only require Internet news sites to register with the government. Bloggers and forum posters would only be "encouraged" to register. The undersecretary claims that the new laws are intended to bring Web and mobile media under the same controls as print and broadcast media in Saudi Arabia. By requiring news sites (al-Hazzaa claims there are "more than 100" in KSA) to register with the government, he says their reporters will be allowed "to take part in regular media activities alongside traditional media." To place this in context, Saudi Arabia has under 20 daily and weekly newspapers published nationwide. The "more than 100" number almost certainly includes politics-centered blogs.

The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a history of detainment and harassment of politics-obsessed bloggers. This includes a variety of secularists, leftists, and Islamists whose views often fall under official disfavor for a variety of reasons. Fifty-seven-year-old human rights activist and blogger Sheikh Mekhlef bin Dahham al-Shammari has been in prison since June on charges of "annoying others." Munir al-Jassas, who frequently blogged on pro-Shiite topics, has been in prison since November of 2009. Dissident bloggers and journalists are often subjected to other forms of harassment: One of the highest ranking clerics in Saudi Arabia recently issued a fatwa calling for the deaths of journalists Abdullah bin Bejad al-Otaibi and Yousef Aba al-Khail, whom he accused of apostasy. Foreign journalist Rozanna al-Yami was sentenced to 60 lashes for interviewing an anonymous Saudi man about his sex life for Lebanese television.

Forum posters, personal bloggers, or users of social media services such as Twitter and Facebook may emerge unscathed from these new regulations, although there's certainly cause for heightened nerves. Al-Hazzaa claims that, "We are not putting it in our mind to license them [social media users]. There are so many we cannot control them," and that new sites pop up too rapidly to track. Nonetheless, al-Hazzaa's subsequent comments seem to resemble backtracking much more than clarification. The reaction from Saudi bloggers has been quick and withering. As Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan put it, "We are not above the law. Our right to write and express ourselves through blogs is a personal right, we should not need to have permission for that."

There is the issue of the new law's pliability, too, which is where it's easily confused as a licensing requirement for bloggers. Ahmad al-Shagra of The Next Web notes that al-Hazzaa's new law gives the government wide leeway to reclassify blogs as news websites and that the Saudi Arabian authorities have never established a formal definition of what constitutes "ePress."

According to the OpenNet initiative at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Saudi Arabia enacted a prior set of technology restrictions in 2008 targeting sites that, among other things, advocate "terrorism" or "pornography or other materials that violate public law, religious values and social standards of the kingdom." Prior to these new regulations, al-Hazzaa was best known for developing Saudi Arabia's intellectual property law and developing the Kingdom's anti-software piracy campaigns.