DUBAI (Reuters) - Saudi Arabian bloggers and journalists say the arch-conservative Islamic kingdom will find it hard to douse glimmers of more open reporting despite a tightening of media rules after the spread of popular revolts through the Arab world.
As Saudis increasingly turn to satellite television, online news providers and social networking to follow current events, censorship targeting traditional media is becoming ineffective.
The world’s number one oil exporter announced a series of stricter regulations for journalists after “Arab Spring” unrest hit neighboring countries earlier this year.
“I haven’t noticed a pattern of these laws affecting how the media covers things,” said a blogger who regularly writes about politics, society and media. “And nowadays anything that doesn’t make its way to the mainstream media will make its way online.”
In a royal decree issued in March as protests were boiling over in the region in March, Saudi King Abdullah forbade criticism of senior members of the Sunni Muslim clergy.
A new media law issued in April then threatened fines and the closure of publications that offended top figures or were seen to jeopardize stability.
More recently, a leaked draft of an anti-terrorism law classified “endangering national security” and “harming the reputation of the state” as terrorist offences.
Mirroring the spread of blogging, Twitter and a multitude of other ways to spread information, Saudi media had become more open and critical in recent years of both the government and the country’s rigid social mores.
“I don’t think that what has been going on in the last 10 years will be pulled back,” said Hussein Shobokshi, a columnist for the website of the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya. “Saudis, especially the youth, are becoming extremely creative and entertaining in delivering their message online.”
Yet despite progress toward more open reporting, Saudi newspapers and official television channels apply a strict standard of self censorship more severe than in most neighboring countries.
The government already uses the threat of closure and bans on offending writers or editors to stifle criticism.
Last year, a liberal editor had to quit his newspaper after it published an article critical of Saudi Arabia’s official Wahhabi school of Islam.
And when Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal announced plans on September 13 to launch a news channel, the kingdom’s capital Riyadh was noticeably absent from the handful of Gulf cities he cited as possible bases for the venture.
The new regulations might push editors to clamp down further on some risque subjects.
“It will affect attitudes for columnists and everybody in the kingdom when you have a royal decree and a new media law talking about more restrictions on the media,” said Khalid al-Dakhil, a Saudi columnist for the Arab daily al-Hayat. “It’s very unfortunate at this particular time.”
Twenty years ago, newspapers were so worried about upsetting the Saudi government that they waited days before reporting on Iraq’s invasion of the kingdom’s neighbor Kuwait.
Today, with an Internet penetration rate of 44 percent, according to internetworldstats.com, and satellite television available in most Saudi homes, such blanket control would be impossible. “The bar is being raised and the consumer, the viewer, the reader will not accept a lower bar,” said Shobokshi.
In recent years the authorities have also pressured news outlets to adopt a more liberal editorial approach. The policy was aimed at diluting extremist religious attitudes, which the government says attracted some Saudi citizens to militancy.
In a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, a Saudi editor said King Abdullah had personally visited his office to push for more progressive news coverage.
“He told us that conservative elements in Saudi society do not understand true Islam, and that people needed to be educated,” the editor was quoted as saying by the cable’s author.
Analysts who follow the kingdom have noticed how the new official tone translated into changes in press coverage.
“What we’ve seen over the past 10 years was that the media was allowed to criticize, for example, the haia (religious police), and that criticism of the royal family as a whole was no longer held as a taboo,” said Madawi al-Rasheed, author of “A History Of Saudi Arabia.”
“But the council of higher ulama (clerics), the grand mufti, the king and top royals could not be criticized in the official press.”
Some analysts interpreted the new laws as a sop to senior clerics who had backed the ruling family by saying anti-government protests were wrong.
“The (new) law was to show appreciation for what the clergy did in opposing the revolutions,” said Dakhil. “It is a quid pro quo. But if it wasn’t for King Abdullah, there would never have been that much openness in the media.”
The ruling Al Saud dynasty has always run the kingdom in alliance with clerics of the puritanical Wahhabi school of Islam, trading government support of the clergy for the legitimacy that religious backing bestowed on their rule.
But in recent years newspapers have increasingly reported on what they see as extreme, or eccentric, positions adopted by clerics. The trend began in 2002 when the press accused Saudi religious police of preventing schoolgirls evacuating a burning building because they were not wearing full Islamic attire, leading to 15 deaths.
When a cleric last year issued a fatwa that said unrelated men and women could get around sexual segregation if the man drank the woman’s breast milk, he was ridiculed in the national press.
Despite the new laws, journalists believe that sort of case will still be reported.
“The momentum will be maintained,” said Shobokshi. “The whole principle of maintaining a productive, constructive press in Saudi Arabia will continue to be the case.”
Editing by Reed Stevenson and Mark Heinrich