Country Report Saudi Arabia May 2011

The political scene: New law tightens media constraints

Shia and Sunni activists alike have been targeted by a new law issued by royal decree in late April that further tightens existing restrictions on media comment. The law prohibits the publishing of articles, online as well as in print, that contradict the rulings of sharia (Islamic law); reporting that could "disturb" public order or threaten the country's security or foreign interests; and reporting that could be viewed as encouraging sectarianism or that leads to "divisions between citizens". It also forbids violating the "reputation" and "dignity" of the most senior Sunni cleric, the grand mufti, members of the de facto state clerical leadership, the Higher Council of Senior Ulema, or any other government official or institution. In addition, it prohibits publishing without official consent proceedings from any investigations or court trials.

The king, Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, had already signalled in March that the kingdom would be reasserting the centrality of the ulema (religious scholars) in the governance of the country, seemingly in an attempt to shore up Al Saud authority at a time of regional upheaval. In late April the grand mufti, Sheikh Abdel-Aziz bin Abdullah Ahl al-Sheikh, stated the official clerics' clear condemnation of the protests elsewhere in the Arab world, which he labelled "sedition". This represents a reaffirmation of the position expressed by other senior "state" clerics in recent weeks, after some official and semi-official Saudi clerical figures had initially suggested that revolt against "godless" tyrants such as those in Tunisia, Egypt or Libya was acceptable under Islam. However, the latest tightening of media comment has not been universally welcomed, even by the semi-official media. For instance, a cartoon in Al Hayat, a daily Arabic newspaper published in London and owned by Khaled bin Sultan al-Saud, the assistant defence minister and son of the crown prince, Sultan bin Abdel-Aziz al-Saud, ridiculed the directive and likened it to a hammer smashing an already dim light illuminating press freedom in the country.

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