Social Media Revolution Hits Saudi Arabia Saudi's social media activists spread videos and news updates at the peak of the street protests in Tunisia — and the interest has stayed high ever since. Many wonder if the Saudi government will clamp down on this free-wheeling speech.
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Social Media Revolution Hits Saudi Arabia

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Social Media Revolution Hits Saudi Arabia

Social Media Revolution Hits Saudi Arabia

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The revolution in Tunisia began with one street vendor who set himself on fire out of despair and anger. Many young Tunisians first heard of his story on the Internet, and they then used social media to communicate and organize around their cause. Tunisia has been called the first successful Twitter revolution.

While social media activists are taking notes so too are Arab governments. NPR's Deborah Amos reports from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

DEBORAH AMOS: With three million on Facebook and Internet usage up 400 percent in a year, Saudi Arabia has a social media revolution.

(Soundbite of electronic noise)

AMOS: This is the sound of a Twitter feed. The byte-sized comments come in torrents here. Recently, many focused on Tunisia. In fact, Saudi's social media activists spread videos and updates at the peak of the street protests, and the interest has stayed high ever since.

But what now? Will the Saudi government clamp down on this freewheeling speech?

Professor HATOON AL FASSI (History Professor, King Saud University): It's a good question, and I was wondering what or when would we see that effect of Tunisia on us.

AMOS: That's Hatoon Al Fassi, a professor and political activist.

Prof. AL FASSI: Everybody, politically speaking, are on their nerves. They're not happy with anything that goes on in the media. For example, when I wrote my article today, it was refused.

AMOS: Al Fassi felt the chill firsthand when she delivered her weekly newspaper column. She wrote about Arab governments' response to events in Tunisia, and she had to defend the topic to her editor.

Prof. AL FASSI: Everything I've written was actually from the news; I haven't put anything new. Said yes, too, you could put them all together.

AMOS: While Saudi Arabia still controls the domestic media, it's harder to block out international news. But for the first time, the government has published new regulations for the electronic media. Users, including bloggers, are encouraged to register with the government. The rules prohibit criticism of Islam or anything that compromises public order, rules which spurred an outburst of criticism online.

Mr. MOHAMMED QATANI (Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association): I believe this is an ugly tactic of censoring freedom of expression.

AMOS: That's Mohammed Qatani, and he heads the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, an unofficial human-rights group that publishes provocative challenges to the government on a website registered outside the country.

Mr. QATANI: And they do censor our website. Over the past year, it has been blocked more than 15 times. Can you imagine? Almost every two weeks, they will just shut it down. But we figure out how to do it.

AMOS: And that's the thing, says Prince Turki al Faisal, a former diplomat and head of intelligence. It's impossible to clamp down on the Web.

Prince TURKI AL FAISAL (Former Diplomat, Saudi Arabia): If you want to get to a certain website, who can prevent you? You can hook your phone to a provider in Ukraine or Timbuktu. It is not a means to clamp down but rather simply to regulate them.

AMOS: But this week, Human Rights Watch reports that the Saudi government has harassed and jailed critics and warns that the new regulations are likely to suppress electronic communications.

The Human Rights Watch report also notes there's a lively exchange of views on the Saudi Web, and even government officials check on blog sites to monitor what's going on in the kingdom.

(Soundbite of rushing water)

AMOS: This is a YouTube posting of the 2009 floods in Jeddah. More than 70 people died. The government contained the damages after responding to YouTube reports and Facebook groups that were way ahead of local officials in reporting the crisis.

Mr. ROBERT LACEY (Writer): The young Saudis I've spoken to about this plan to get bloggers registered just laugh. There are all sorts of technical ways that I don't quite understand of getting around it and blogging under an assumed name.

AMOS: Robert Lacey has lived in Saudi Arabia for decades and written about the royal family. He says the Internet poses a challenge for this conservative, mostly religious society.

Mr. LACEY: It's one of the big questions ahead for Saudi Arabia, how this authoritarian regime will live with the freedom and chaos that the Internet represents.

AMOS: So far, the social media revolution has been a limited success, but that was before the uprising in Tunisia.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Riyadh.

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