Freedom of speech organizations are condemning a decision by the Saudi Arabian government to force all online ewspapers and bloggers to register with the Ministry of Culture and Information.
Under the new rules, to be introduced next month, all online writers – and this appears to include forums and even short messaging – will need a licence, valid for up to three years.
The Saudi government says the move is simply designed to protect society – and points out that it was already censoring content anyway. Saudi Arabia has one of the highest numbers of bloggers in the Arabic world.
Applicants for a licence need to be Saudi, at least 20 years old and to have graduated from high school. They will also need ‘documents testifying to their good behaviour’. Editors of online newspapers will need to be approved by the Ministry of Information and Culture.
Anyone caught blogging without a licence will be subject to a fine of up to 100,000 Riyal ($26,665), and/or a ban – possibly forever.
At the same time, the Saudi government has blocked the Arabic Wikileaks page.
The move has been condemned by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which says it puts the Saudi government top of the list of autocratic governments not only in the Arab world, but worldwide.
“It is not a regulation to regulate the activities of electronic publishing as they claim, but rather a set of measures to seize freedom of publication on the Internet,” it says.
“Authorities will not be able to stop expression, the snowball has started to roll and no one can stop it. The siege imposed by the Saudi government on citizens will not succeed in killing ideas, opinions or stopping information and news from flowing.”
But mainstream news organizations, already used to operating under close scrutiny, are praising the new regulations.
“What the Minister did was right, for who said that freedom comes without responsibility? Don’t they say that the field of publishing is a door wide open?” says Tariq Alhomayed, editor in chief of Asharaq Alawasat.
“Whoever wants to write, be published, and criticize others, must do so with credibility, and a firm stance, rather than hiding behind a computer screen in order to defame someone, spread ugly rumors, or promote social division under a false name and then they have the audacity to say: let me exercise my freedom!”