Censorship in Saudi Arabia – online media restrictions

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In an era where digital platforms allow for unprecedented access to information, some nations are intensifying their efforts to stifle freedom of expression. Saudi Arabia stands out as an example, evidenced by its alarming crackdown on online dissent. In 2022 alone, the kingdom made headlines for the arrest of 15 individuals, being sentenced in a range of ten to 45 years, solely based on their online activities.

With a notorious track record of targeting activists, journalists, and civil society members, Saudi Arabia has now expanded its scope to include ordinary citizens who dare to voice criticisms of the regime in the digital sphere. Amnesty International’s reports a concerning situation, illustrating not only a surge in repression against dissenting voices but also the systematic dissemination of government propaganda across online platforms, aimed at molding public opinion in favor of the Saudi regime.

Freedom House states that freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia is severely restricted, evident in its low score of 24 out of 100 on the freedom of the net ranking, categorizing the country as ‘not free.’ This assessment encompasses barriers to digital access, content limitations, and violations of user rights, all receiving minimal scores. The government exercises its power to heavily restrict online activities and control access to information. Censorship and high-tech surveillance systems are pervasive, with Saudi authorities increasingly relying on global spyware providers to monitor residents’ online activities.

Recent proposals for new laws suggest an escalation of digital repression. The General Authority of Media Regulation (GAMR) introduced a Media Law in November 2023, aiming to overhaul existing regulations governing various media forms, including digital platforms. The proposed law extends to social media platforms, considering them as media outlets, and requires them to obtain licenses for content creation and dissemination. The GAMR holds the authority to determine content approval, creating a censorship regime that violates human rights-based standards in media regulation.

This tightening of control over online expression is poised to intensify further with the proposed laws. If enacted, these measures could not only silence dissenting voices within Saudi Arabia but also potentially stifle the expression of individuals outside the kingdom’s borders, marking a concerning expansion of Saudi digital repression onto the global stage.

Salma al-Shehab, a Leeds University PhD student and mother of two from Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority, initially faced a six-year jail term, which was later increased to 34 years by the SCC in August 2022, accompanied by a 34-year travel ban. Her mobile phone was confiscated, and she was ordered to shut down her Twitter account. Salma endured 285 days of solitary confinement and was denied access to legal representation throughout her pre-trial detention. She was convicted of using Twitter to support women’s rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul. Non governmental organizations, such as the Amnesty International, are calling for the immediate release of al-Shehab and using this case to raise awareness on the concerning situation in the country.

Saudi Arabia’s relentless crackdown on digital dissent symbolizes its suppression of freedom of expression. The proposed Media Law by the General Authority of Media Regulation further tightens control, potentially extending censorship beyond borders. Salma al-Shehab’s case highlights the repression faced by citizens who voice an opinion that contradicts the government’s narrative. As international pressure mounts, it’s clear that defending digital freedom should be prioritized, and as such, urgent action is needed to safeguard freedom of expression in the face of escalating repression.