Free Speech and Free Press in Saudi Arabia


Sophia George | Free Speech and Free Press around the World – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Flag of Saudi Arabia- Adopted in 1973

Saudi Arabia: A country known for its rich resources and massive size ranks 158 on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, increasing one place from 157 in 2010; however, decreasing from its 163 spot in 2009.

“Saudi Arabia ha[s] already been very low in the index because of the lack of pluralism and high level of self-censorship.” (RWB, 2012)

Although the country ranks higher than other societies such as North Korea and China, censorship is still a very serious issue there. Researchers, Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman used a number of proxy servers to find an estimate and scope on what websites were blocked by the Saudi Arabian government. They state:

“Having requested some 64,557 distinct web pages and found 2,038 to be blocked, we conclude that Saudi Arabia indeed blocks a range of web content beyond that which is sexually explicit. For example, we found blocking of at least 246 pages indexed by Yahoo as Religion (including 67 about Christianity, 45 about Islam, 22 about Paganism, 20 about Judaism, and 12 about Hinduism). We also found blocking of 76 pages within Yahoo’s humor categories, 70 within music categories, and 43 within movies, and we found 13 blocked pages about homosexuality. Taken as a whole, the Saudi government’s stated blocking criteria are quite broad, making it difficult to assess whether the blocking of a given site is consistent with the criteria.” (Zittrain, 2022)

The research done showed that the Saudi Arabian government even went so far as to block all websites dealing with women specifically. (Zittrain, 2002) Needless to say, censorship is quite prevalent in Saudi Arabia, limiting their freedom of speech, and their freedom of press. According to an annual report presented by Reporters without Borders, the free speech and free press issue in Saudi Arabia is considered a “very serious situation” comparable to Syria, Iran, China, North Korea, and Sri Lanka. (RWB, 2012)

Historical Background

Known as “the birthplace of Islam”, with a population of over 26.1 million people, Saudi Arabia is known for their incredibly supply of petroleum which they export to a number of leading nations worldwide. It is located in the Middle East. According to the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia located in Washington, DC, Saudi Arabia is a monarchy based on Islam. “The government is headed by the King, who is also the commander in chief of the military.” Assisting the king is the crown prince who is second in line to the throne. He is appointed by the king. The king has what is known as the council of ministers and consists of 22 government ministries to make up this cabinet. “The King is also advised by a legislative body called the Consultative Council (Majlis Al-Shura).

The Council proposes new laws and amends existing ones. It consists of 150 members who are appointed by the King for four-year terms that can be renewed.” The country of Saudi Arabia consists of 13 provinces each with their own governor and each council has a council that advises the governor. The judicial system is based on Islamic law, where the king is “at the top of the legal system. He acts as the final court of appeal and can issue pardons.

There are also courts in the Kingdom. The largest are the Shari’ah Courts, which hear most cases in the Saudi legal system.” Saudi Arabia is recognized as having very strict Islamic laws due to the presence of Islam, which is so prevalent in their society, from segregated sexes…to their take on free speech in the country. According to the Saudi Arabian Internet Services Unit, which is the internet service provider for all of Saudi Arabia, their filtering policy for what is seen on the internet is merely that “all sites that contain content in violation of Islamic tradition or national regulations shall be blocked.” Saudi Arabian citizens are eligible for arrest if they post anything considered “offensive” against the armed forces, public officials, or against the religion of Islam.

“Although the Sa’udi state is now highly visible, thanks to the infrastructure it has created, its relations with its people and history remain contentious.” (Al-Rasheed, 2010)

Studies done by various historians have shown that Saudi Arabia uses

“state-sponsored representations of the past, embedded in official historiography, political rhetoric and festivities create a historical memory that serves to enforce obedience to the ruling group.”(Al-Rasheed, 182)

The history of Saudi Arabia has always been one based on “Shari’ah” which is Islamic Law. (Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, 2012) King Abdul-Aziz updated the monarchy created in the 18th century when he “built the foundation for a constitutional regime… establishing a modern government.” (Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia, 2012)

As the years progressed, the Saudis have continually updated their government to keep up with the times, however the limits set on citizens regarding expression is still very prevalent in their country due to the “lack of pluralism and high level of self-censorship.” (Reporters without Borders, 13)

Historic Free Speech Issues

Since the founding of the country, Saudi Arabia has always battled with the idea of free speech. The Al Saud family, the family that has ruled the country for generations has succeeded in enforcing their monarchy “through a skillful combination of distribution, penetration, and coercion, with a legitimating dose of ideology.” (Angrist, 2010)

According to author, Michele Angrist,

“At the end of the day, governance in Saudi Arabia is not representative, not accountable, and does not protect rights for citizens. Basic civil and political rights are absent.” (Angrist, 389)

Basic crimes throughout history have been seen including strikes, public criticism, and revolt. In fact, revolt is how the country was taken by the Al Saud dynasty. The Arabs were the ones to revolt against the Turks, leading to the capture of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. Abdul Aziz Al Saud helped the British defeat the Turks in 1902. (Arshad, 2003).

Saudi Arabia has always had a firm grasp on their citizens when it comes to free expression. Their lack of pluralism can be seen clearly even in today’s time.

Current Free Speech Issues

The lack of freedom of speech is Saudi Arabia is incredibly apparent. Currently, there are several protests taking place in the capital of Saudi Arabia as well as a number of other cities.

“Female students of King Khaled University organized a ‘rare’ sit-in demanding improvement in the treatment of the University’s board and the expulsion of the University director.” (IFEX, 2012)

The authorities called the police who violently forced the protest to disperse and managed to “[kill] a female student and injuring 54 others in the proofs, as well as detaining a male student who expressed solidarity with them.” The sporadic detentions that Saudi Arabia has been proven to have made in the previous years is upsetting to more than just citizens.

IFEX reports on March 28, 2012

Saudi Arabia should end the arbitrary detention and travel bans inflicted on those who peacefully exercise their freedom of speech or assembly.” (IFEX, 2012)

According to Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle east director at the Human Rights Watch

“Saudi Arabia is doubling its efforts to punish those who dare to demand democracy and human rights reform.” (IFEX, 2012)

Historic Free Press Issues

Historically speaking, free speech has always been in play in Saudi Arabia, and this can be seen clearly by looking at the speeches provided by the past generations of rulers.

“Political speech tends to reiterate the themes embedded in historical studies but also contradicts some aspects of this historiography.” (Al-Rasheed, 2010)

They focus on Saudi Arabia not only as a society by also as a system of politics born in the modern era. The limitations on free press have been prevalent since the establishment of the country. This is clear by looking at the number of censorship laws put into play by the Saudi government, and their reactions to any sort of protest to the way the country is run currently.

Current Free Press Issues

In the earlier months of 2011, two petitions were sent out by Saudi intellectuals calling for

“an elected parliament with full legislative powers, the independence of the judiciary, greater freedom to establish civil society organizations, guarantees of freedom of expression, the release of political prisoners, and greater efforts to root out official corruption.”(Gause, 2011)

Even the Saudi elite seems to be standing for more freedom in expressing themselves. The petitions however were not considered by Saudi rulers, and instead placed more stringent regulations of political speech and arrested a number of activists as they have always done. On February 15, 2012, the International Freedom of Expression Exchange posted an article commenting on the charges of blasphemy and apostasy that a Saudi blogger faced after tweeting about the Prophet Mohammed. The report states

“A Saudi blogger whose tweets about the Prophet Mohammed were deemed blasphemous and tantamount to apostasy has been deported from Malaysia back to Saudi Arabia, where he is certain to face trial and possibly the death penalty”. (IFEX,2012)

Hamza Kashgari, tweeted on the birthday of the prophet saying “I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don’t understand about you”. A number of tweets followed afterwards stating the journalist’s reluctance to accept Islam in its entirety. Kashgari

“led Saudi Arabia on 6 February in hopes of finding political asylum after his tweets sparked an official publishing ban and order for his arrest, as well as a Twitter lynch mob that called for his death, report the members.”

Unfortunately, he was caught in Kuala Lumpur on February 9. This case is one amongst the many that clearly depict the censorship issues of the country. (IFEX, 2009). ON Mach 15, 2012 IFEX reported that influential poet Habib Ali al-Maatiq was detained one again by the Saudi government.

“He was detained nine years ago for three years because of his reformist political onions. He is detained once again, and Saudi mass media, which is controlled by the Saudi government, remains silent.” (IFEX,2012).

Critical Comparison

Looking at Saudi Arabia, it is apparent that the country has a number of problems dealing with free speech and free press. Freedom of expression is not favored in this society, which is not something most Americans are used to, however according to the World Press Freedom Index, America is not the freest country in the world when it comes to freedom of expression. This is clear with the “Occupy” movements that have been going on for quite some time now. Although America as a nation is freer than Saudi Arabia, we prove to be found ranked at number 47 on the list.

Although the number is lower than most would expect, the Untied States is still thought of as a satisfactory situation. The way that America would handle the situations in Saudi Arabia are very different. For example, the protest that was done at King Khaled University would not have led to the death of an innocent as well as dozens injured. In ideal America, one can hope that since this was a peaceful protest, they would be allowed to continue with no consequences. The first amendment explicitly protects this right.

Saudi Arabia detains individuals who peacefully assemble. Once again, in ideal America, this would be considered unconstitutional and detainment would not be allowed. The Saudi elite asking for a more modern government through two petitions would have received more interest in America insofar as the voices of the American citizens are usually heard. The three branches of government are equally divided and the appropriate separation of powers that is put on each branch protects citizens’ rights.

The Saudi blogger case is interesting. Just recently in the United States, congress was looking to pass the SOPA bill, which was the government’s attempt at trying to prevent piracy and copyright infringement. Citizens met the bill with incredible distaste as many believed in went against their rights provided to them by the government. American citizens were able to do this without having to worry about criminal punishment because of the rights provided to them in the Constitution. If the Saudi blogger were an American who decided to post tweets about his hesitation to believe Islam, it would not be met with detainment and criminal punishment due to the fact that citizens are provided the freedom to speak freely.

Rights in America are very different from the rights given to Saudi Arabians regarding free speech and free press. From previous research, it is apparent that Americans have more freedom to say what they want and write what they believe as long as it does not intentionally harm anyone.

Saudi Arabians are held under law to only write things and make comments that do not go against the nation of Islam. Even though America is not the freest country of the world when it comes to freedom of expression, they beat out Saudi Arabia by a long shot. Currently, Saudi Arabia is working to modernize their government, regardless of resistance from the rulers, but maybe one day their citizens will be as free as American citizens are.

Works Cited:

Al-Rasheed, Madawi. A History of Saudi Arabia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Print

Angrist, Michele. Politics & Society in the Contemporary Middle East. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc, 2010. Print.

“Authorities urged to stop arbitrary arrests, travel bans on critics”. Trans. np. IFEX. 28 Mar. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. ‹›.

“Blogger faces charges of blasphemy, apostasy after Mohammed Tweets”. Trans. np. IFEX. 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. ‹›.

“Crackdowns on Protests Cause Big Changes to Index Positions.” Trans. Reporters Without Borders. Reporters Without Borders. 25 Jan. 2012. Web. 4 Apri. 2012.

“Critical Poet Detained; website blocked”. Trans. np. IFEX. 15 Feb. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. ‹›.

Gause, Gregory. Saudi Arabia in the New Middle East. USACouncil on Foreign Relations. 2012. Print

“Local Content Filtering Policy”. Trans. Internet Services Unit King Abdulaziz for Science and Techonology. nd. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. ‹›.

“Student and demonstrator killed as protests spread”. Trans. np. IFEX. 13 Mar. 2012. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. ‹›.

“World Report 2010-Saudi Arabia” Human Rights Watch. Np. Nd. 04/04/12. <;

Zittrain, Johnathan. “Documentation of Internet Filtering in Saudi Arabia”. Trans. Harvard Law School. Harvard Law. nd. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. ‹›.

Go to Original –

Share this article:

DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Comments are closed.