Saudi Arabia Now Forcing News Bloggers to Obtain Licenses, Promote Islam

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - The Middle Eastern kingdom has just enacted one of the world's most stringent sets of blogging regulations: Non-citizens can't write about news, chat room users are encouraged to register with the government, and everyone needs to be very careful about religion.

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. Fast Company previously reported on the law's announcement this past autumn, but the actual reforms enacted were far more punitive than we were earlier led to believe. The exact specifics of the new regulations were not previously announced by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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.

Some Saudi Arabians are already voicing their protest at the law. Saudi Jeans, a popular English-language blog, wrote a long post about the new anti-blogger regulations. The blog's author, a Columbia University journalism school student named Ahmed al-Omran, said he is not registering:

I have no plan to register my blog with MOCI, but if you are considering that choice you probably want to know that not anyone can do this as they please. To register, a Saudi citizen must be at least 20 years old with a high school degree or above, and if you plan to launch a so-called “electronic newspaper,” the ministry must approve of your editor-in-chief, just like they do for dead tree newspapers. The law says the editor is held accountable for all content published on the website, but says nothing readers’ comments. Is the editor also held accountable for those?

Others are more supportive of the law. Tariq al-Homayed, editor-in-chief of the influential pan-Arab daily aSharq al-Awsat, wrote words of support to the Saudi government in an op-ed: "Thanks to the Minister of Information, because this game has now been exposed, and anybody who wants to challenge the media is welcome to do so, so long as they do this under their real name, address, and place of business. We will not accept anybody who simply wants to settle scores or broadcast rumors."

aSharq al-Awsat is owned by Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch's Christoph Wilcke sees chilling implications for public discourse:

What little freedom Saudis have gained in expressing their views online, what little vibrancy Saudis have enjoyed in their media, this regulation shuts down. They provide a fig leaf of legality for government suppression of burgeoning, uncensored online expression in the kingdom.

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.