Saudi Press Wages Attack

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) -- Following a fire in a girls' school that killed 15 students in the holy city of Mecca in March, the Saudi press displayed an audaciousness that was out of character.

Several Saudi papers waged an unprecedented attack against the religious establishment following witness accounts -- later denied by the government -- that the religious police prevented the girls from fleeing the school because they were not covered with their abayas, or black cloaks.

Readers praised the efforts of local reporters to go beyond the spoon-fed fare of the government-controlled Saudi Press Agency to get to the truth. One, Tariq al-Maeena, wrote in a letter to Arab News titled, ``The walls shall crumble down,'' that the ``press has become bolder and truer and more responsible to their profession.''

However, a couple of weeks after the burst of openness, the government yanked the leash and the kingdom's newspapers reverted to their old, docile form.

``The press here is one way, from the top to the bottom. There's no feedback from the public,'' said Suleiman al-Shammari, a journalism professor.

``The government acts like the media's doorman, especially when it comes to foreign policy, opening and closing the door when it wishes,'' he added.

Saudi Arabia's information minister did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

The main sources of news for most Saudis are satellite channels, such as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera. Satellite dishes, though illegal, are widespread. The Internet is another source of news for Saudis, but their government heavily censors it -- about half a million sites, many of them pornographic or maintained by the opposition, are blocked on any given day.

The press restrictions are part of wider controls on all forms of literature, public artistic expression and academic subjects.

The authorities prohibit the study of evolution, Freud, Marx, Western music and Western philosophy, and prohibit the criticism of Islam or the ruling family.

``In the Arab world, Saudi Arabia exercises the strictest control over the written word,'' said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi writer who is regional director of the respected Saudi-owned, London-based Al Hayat daily.

Although newspapers are owned by private institutions, their editors are appointed by the government. The editors meet regularly with the information minister, who gives them guidelines on sensitive topics.

In the case of the school fire, the campaign against the religious establishment abated after Information Minister Fuad al-Farsi met with the editors. Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who's also the head of the Higher Media Council, also met with editors and scolded them for crossing lines concerning religion, according to a source who attended the meeting.

In another example of how the government tries to inhibit the press, the Information Ministry has asked Al Watan daily, the boldest Saudi daily, to pay a fine of $10,800 for distributing a survey to Palestinians in several Arab countries asking them whether they would want to return to their homes in the event of a peace settlement with Israel.

The ministry imposed the fine even though Al Watan canceled the survey when the Palestinian Embassy in Algeria protested to the Saudi Foreign Ministry that the poll was politically sensitive.

A letter from the Information Ministry to Al Watan -- a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press -- said in addition to the fine, the newspaper ``should make a written pledge that you would not repeat the infraction.''

In another incident, the government fired Mohammed Mokhtar al-Fal, editor-in-chief of Al-Madina daily, last month after his newspaper printed a poem that accused Islamic judges of being corrupt and following the orders of ``tyrants.''

Despite its control on the press, the government has tolerated in recent years criticism on previously taboo subjects, such as the abuse of women, servants and children.

The U.S. State Department's Human Rights report for 2001 said the government has continued to relax its blackout policy regarding news in the international media.

``The government's policy in this regard appears to be motivated in part by pragmatic considerations: access by citizens to outside sources of information, such as Arabic and Western satellite television channels and the Internet,'' said the report.