Saudi Media Crackdown Raises Concerns

In the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, reform advocates have generally been heartened by King Abdullah's cautious moves to open up the deeply conservative society. But in the past few months, an apparent crackdown on dissent in the media has raised concerns.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has tiptoed toward opening up that deeply conservative society when it comes to freedom of expression and the press. Now, it appears to be stepping back, and its most prominent target? Al Jazeera TV.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Jeddah.

PETER KENYON: When the tiny gulf state of Qatar launched the Al Jazeera Channel in the mid-1990s, it sent shockwaves through Arab states that were used to maintaining tight control over their media. Broadcasting from the Qatari capital of Doha, Al Jazeera stunned viewers by allowing dissenting voices including those of Israeli spokespeople on the air. The channel wasn't afraid to go after leading Arab politicians, and it was especially harsh on Saudi Arabia.

Doha and Riyadh have had strange relations for years, and analysts say Al Jazeera inflamed the situation with its harsh coverage of its larger and wealthier neighbor. Analysts in the United Arab Emirates and in Saudi Arabia confirmed that last fall, a crucial meeting was held at which the Saudis demanded that Al Jazeera be brought to heel.

Dubai analyst Mustafa Alani says, with other regional disputes being overshadowed these days by the political and potential nuclear threat from the Shiite-led Iran, the Sunni members of the GCC or Gulf Cooperation Council decided to set aside their own differences to form a stronger front against Tehran. And that, he says, prompted the Qatari leadership to send a message to Al Jazeera.

Mr. MUSTAFA ALANI (Director of Security, Gulf Research Center, Dubai): Now, we see the six countries here coming closer, try to settle their dispute. Now, the Qataris giving major concession, basically putting pressure on Al Jazeera to have a positive report about the situation in Saudi Arabia. And this was a condition from the Saudis' leadership that Al Jazeera must be controlled.

KENYON: Some Saudi analysts say that before Al Jazeera was muzzled, its negative coverage of Saudi issues sometimes went overboard. Still, they regret what appears to be a step back toward the days when Arab media were docile tools of their governments or of the political party that funded them.

Wahid bin Hashim(ph), associate professor of political science at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, was a longtime contributor to the Okaz newspaper. But he says he never felt free to fully speak his mind.

Professor WAHID Bin HASHAM (Political Science, King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia): When I criticized the university, I was punished. When I criticized some government agency, I was punished. And I've been with Okaz for almost nine years, and I was not able to continue because whatever I write, it's under censorship.

KENYON: Analysts and journalists say in a tightly controlled society like Saudi Arabia there are many ways of punishing unpopular writers and deterring others from speaking out. One example is the arrest in December of Fouad al-Farhan, considered the kingdom's most popular blogger. Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki says Farhan's detention is not part of a general crackdown on bloggers.

Major General MANSOUR AL-TURKI (Spokesman, Interior Ministry, Saudi Arabia): The police has arrested a specific person. I mean, he'd been on the Internet for many years, and there are many others actually who are either on the Internet or who write on the local media. Therefore, actually why we would single such a person, you know, from all the others just because there are - a case against him.

KENYON: But the government refuses to say what law Farhan is accused of breaking. Other writers suggest that Farhan may have been unnecessarily offensive in his comments.

Former journalist Khaled al-Batarfi has maintained a blog for years and says he hasn't been censored.

Mr. KHALED Al-BATARFI (Editor, Al Madina Newspaper): I have written a lot of things. I went against - I criticized the religious establishment in my last article in alarabia.net. I got a lot of responses, but nobody, I mean, no official talked to me or even called me about that, because this is my right to express my views.

KENYON: But Professor bin Hashim says the government knows that with a single arrest, it can send a chill through the online community. He calls it the hot-stove policy - a warning to bloggers to avoid certain topics.

Prof. BIN HASHIM: It always - this hot-stove policy - it works. And to punish one, this means you will prohibit and prevent thousands. This is a fact, you know. We all know it and we feel it.

KENYON: Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Jeddah.

INSKEEP: The Saudis' fortunes depend in part on the strength of the world economy. For two straight mornings now, we've been watching financial markets fall - from Tokyo to London, and now in the United States. Early this morning, the Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled around 450 points. It has since gained back most of that ground but is still down. Before the opening bell, the Federal Reserve tried to stop too much damage. It cut a key interest rate by three quarters of a percentage point. This was an unusual and surprising move outside of a regular meeting. The White House, today, would not rule out the possibility of even more help to the economy than has already been discussed. And we will bring you more as we learn more here on MORNING EDITION on NPR News.

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