On Being Hashtagged

Adhwan al-Ahmari seems to think that there is some kind of war raging between Saudi journalists and activists. He said the revolution in Egypt has produced a divide between the two groups. This war is taking place in Twitter and in newspaper columns.

First, let’s get some facts straight. There is a lot of broad-brush statements and sweeping generalizations being thrown around here.

For example, Adhwan says activists are demanding the immediate release of all detainees and apply the criminal procedures law to them even for terrorism suspects. This statement is not entirely true. I never heard any activist say they want all detainees released. What most activists want is simply to have the criminal procedures law applied to all detainees, because indefinite detention is illegal and violates their basic human right to a speedy and fair trial.

The activists I have been talking with tell me that keeping detainees in prison for prolonged periods will backfire because these individuals who feel they have been locked up unfairly will leave prison — if and when they do — with a good reason to hate the government, and to act on it. The government needs to respect the law and present the detainees to a court of law, activists said, where they would get charged or acquitted.

Adhwan disagrees. He thinks that activists are exaggerating the numbers of detainees and their grievances, and even lying to promote their cause. Moreover, Adhwan thinks terror suspects should not enjoy the legal protections provided by the criminal procedures law because terrorists have killed innocent people, bombed buildings, and attempted to overthrow the government. That’s why the government, he argues, is not bound by the law when dealing with them.

Of course Adhwan is not the only one of this opinion. Other people, in the media and outside it, agree with him. Recently, some journalists who share this opinion have grown fed up with the activists rising calls on the government to respect the law. Since such topics are still sensitive for mainstream media in the country, activists have turned to social media and the international press to make their voices heard. This did not set well with some local journalists like Adhwan, who seems to have a lot of pride in his profession.

Adhwan’s colleagues, as I have written earlier this week, decided to take on what they called the “New Activism.” Activists, and their supporters, don’t have newspaper columns. They have Twitter. There, they denote their tweets about a specific topic using a hashtag. When someone says something controversial and what they said becomes a topic of discussion on Twitter, we commonly say that he has been hashtagged.

However, because we as a society are not used to critical thinking and open debate, this practice makes some people uncomfortable. I’m not saying Twitter is perfect for every kind of discussion. Sometimes people will use the hashtag to attack the person instead of discussing his ideas. Is that good? No, but I think it comes with the territory and I can live with it. Plus, in a country where frank debate of our most pressing issues is still laden with political, religious and social mines, Twitter is providing a great window into the psyche of the nation where people can freely talk about these issues

Again, I’m not saying that unchecked personal attacks are okay. All I’m saying is that if you decided to publish an opinion then get ready to be not just criticized but to take whatever you get. If you are too sensitive and can’t take criticism then you probably should not put your opinions out to the public.

If getting hashtagged hurts your feelings.. well, tough shit. Grow up. Welcome to the Internet.

Some people downplayed the role of social media in the Arab Spring. Now some local columnists like Salman al-Dossary are trying to do the same. But even if the number of Saudi users on these sites is still not very big, I think tools like Twitter and Facebook have become mainstream enough to offer a good representation of society.

Al-Dossary says it is “laughable” that anyone would take Twitter seriously when there is only 115,000 Saudi users of the service. However, when you consider that many of these users have more followers than the daily circulation of his paper, you wonder who should be laughing.

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Tunisia is Free

Today was a huge, huge day for Tunisia. After four weeks of street protests, president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country. This is probably the first time we witness an Arab leader toppled by his own people. Very happy for the Tunisian people, and very proud of them. I’m especially thrilled for my friends Sami bin Gharbia and Slim Amamou, who worked tirelessly for years to see this day. The only thing that annoyed me was that Saudi Arabia welcomed the ousted dictator to find refuge in our homeland. But for now, let’s just live this historical moment. Here’s to a domino effect all over the Middle East.

PS. This is my favorite video of the day. I don’t know what’s more amazing: the man screaming “Tunisia is free” in the middle of the street, or the woman crying while shooting the video with her phone.

Saudi Gov Releases New Law for Online Media

It’s finally here.

After months of uneasy waiting and gestation, the Saudi ministry of culture and information (MOCI) has bestowed its new law for regulating online publishing upon us. According to the state news agency, minister Abdulaziz Khoja has approved the addition of a new set of rules and guidelines to the current publishing law concerning the new forms of publishing on the Internet and mobile phones.

Before delving into some of the highlights of the new old law -new in its terminology, old in its spirit- allow me to congratulate the ministry on their exquisite sense of timing. Although the law has been in the works for months, the first few signs were made public on the country’s national day back in September, and now the details of the law are released on new year’s day. The ministry knows this is exactly how we want to start the second decade of the millennium.

The ministry of culture and information, being on the cutting edge of all things tech, has made the new law available for download as a Word document on their website here. If you have not been following this story, here is some background.

Now let’s take a look at some of the articles in the law. Some of the expressions and sentences may sound very clunky, that’s because I’m trying to stick to literal translation.

The first article is basically a list definitions. Boring. The second article details the forms of electronic publishing that the new law covers, and those include:

  1. Electronic journalism
  2. Websites of traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazine, etc)
  3. Forums
  4. Blog
  5. Websites displaying audio and visual material
  6. Electronic advertisement
  7. Broadcasting via mobile phones (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  8. Broadcasting via other messages (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  9. Personal websites
  10. Mail lists
  11. Electronic archive
  12. Chat rooms
  13. Any other form of electronic publishing that the ministry may choose to add

Obviously, MOCI wants to extend its control over everything. No surprise here; government bodies in general are well known for their obsession with control. The weird thing is that they also want to regulate advertising online, plus two other things that I don’t really understand: broadcasting via other messages and electronic archive. What are they talking about?

MOCI are kind enough to tell us of the goals behind this new law:

  1. Supporting benevolent electronic media
  2. Regulating the activity of electronic publishing in the Kingdom
  3. Protecting society from malpractices in electronic publishing
  4. Declaring the rights and duties of workers in electronic publishing
  5. Protecting the rights of individuals to create and register any form of electronic publishing
  6. Protecting the rights of individuals to petition concerned authorities in the case of grievance
  7. Support and patronage of the ministry for electronic websites and their employees by facilitating their work

This is MOCI’s rationale for why they think this law is such a great idea. It is not, according to most people I’ve talked to. Protecting society? I don’t recall hearing the society screaming for help. Protecting individuals’ rights to publish online? Hey, we kind of have been doing this for a while now, and we really don’t need your protection and/or permission. Instead of trying to support the newly born online media, why don’t you try to improve the state news agency and television channels? They have been barely surviving on life-support for a long time.

The fifth article lists the forms of online publishing that need permission:

  1. Electronic journalism
  2. Websites of traditional media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazine, etc)
  3. Electronic advertisement
  4. Websites displaying audio and visual material
  5. Broadcasting via mobile phones (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)
  6. Broadcasting via other messages (messages, news, ads, pictures, etc)

The sixth article lists the forms of online publishing that may be registered:

  1. Forums
  2. Blogs
  3. Personal websites
  4. Mail lists
  5. Electronic archive
  6. Chat rooms

Apparently this is the distinction that Abdul Rahman al-Hazza was talking about in September of last year. Bloggers do not need permission, but they may register if they want. Why would any blogger do that is beyond me, but if I understand this correctly, the distinction does not mean anything because whether you register or not you would still be operating under this law. That means the government, or anyone else, really, can use the law and its stretchy articles and loopholes against you in court if they believe you have violated any of them, and the punishment can be very severe.

The seventeenth article of the law details the penalty of violating any part of this law, which includes monetary fines and blocking your website, partially or completely, temporarily or permanently.

I have no plan to register my blog with MOCI, but if you are considering that choice you probably want to know that not anyone can do this as they please. To register, a Saudi citizen must be at least 20 years old with a high school degree or above, and if you plan to launch a so-called “electronic newspaper,” the ministry must approve of your editor-in-chief, just like they do for dead tree newspapers. The law says the editor is held accountable for all content published on the website, but says nothing readers’ comments. Is the editor also held accountable for those?

Another worrying piece in the law says those who get permission must provide the ministry with the information of their hosting company. We can conclude from this that MOCI won’t simply block your website for readers inside the country, but they can also deny access to your website from anywhere by forcing the hosting company to take your site offline altogether. Scary.

What do you think about all of this? Discuss.

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Law professor held, Saudis all atwitter

Mohammed al-Abdulkarim, a Saudi law professor, was arrested Sunday after publishing an article about the royal succession and the possibility of a power struggle inside the ruling family. The article was firs published on al-Abdulkarim’s Facebook profile, and later republished on Royaah magazine website.

Four men, variously wearing civilian clothes and uniforms, arrested him at his Riyadh home, the Human Rights First Society of Saudi Arabia (HRFS) said. Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, head of HRFS, told AFP that al-Abdulkarim’s arrest was illegal on two counts: he was taken without a court warrant for his arrest, and has been held for 24 hours without charge.

As usual, local media in Saudi Arabia has ignored the story, but the social web was quick to pick it up. Not too long after the arrest, the news was flying all over Twitter and Facebook. Users on Twitter used the hashtag #FreeDrAbdulkarim to denote their reactions. Most of them expressed anger and frustration at the arrest. “I, and many others, believe in every word Dr. al-Abdulkarim said in his article. Are you going to arrest us too?” Abdulrahman Alnasri said.

However, the most intense exchange of the day on Twitter was between Abdulrahman al-Enad, member of the Shoura Council, and Waleed Abulkhair, the lawyer of Mohammed al-Abdulkarim. Al-Enad said al-Abdulkarim has made a mistake and should be punished. Some of what al-Enad said did not set well with Abulkhair, who demanded the Shoura Council to apologize for what he considered impoliteness. Al-Enad refused to apologize and told Abulkhair in a relatively salty language to shut up.

http://twitter.com/#!/aalenad/status/11937528332423168

I was momentarily startled by al-Enad’s choice of words and thought it was a slip of the tongue, but the Shoura member stood by what he said. That prompted the creation of another hashtag, #koltebin, which people are using now to discuss the issue of al-Abdulkarim and the kerfuffle between Abulkhair and al-Enad.

Last week I told you that Twitter is big in Saudi Arabia, but did not elaborate on why is that. This is why.

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Top Ten Twitter users in Saudi Arabia

Twitter is big in Saudi Arabia. There, I said it. While no one can say for sure how many Saudi Twitter users exist, I think it is safe to say that the number is in the thousands. Regardless of the numbers, there have always been questions about the influence of social media on public discourse in the Middle East, with many dismissing these new tools as factors for stimulating change. However, I think that the past few months have showed some clear examples for what is possible using social media, as we have seen in stories like those of Samar Badwai and Abdulwahab al-Essa. With Twitter announcing their plan to launch an Arabic version next year, we can only expect that the influence of Twitter will grow and increase.

Now when you first register to Twitter, the website shows lists of suggested users to follow. Unfortunately, these lists are not exactly helpful if you are interested in following people in a certain country. That’s why I wanted to create this list. The list, which ranks users according to the number of their followers, is based on my own personal unscientific research, and it includes only real humans, compared to those Twitter accounts populated by bots/feeds. If I missed anyone, feel free to correct me in the comments.

Without further ado, here is my list for the top 10 Twitter users in Saudi Arabia:

  1. @Azizshalan: This was a surprise to me. I have never heard of Aziz Shalan before working on this list, and his bio offers very little on who he is or what he does. What we know is that he is based in Jeddah, he has more than 12,000 followers, and he tweets in both Arabic and English about many different things.
  2. @TurkiAldakhil: Turki al-Dakhil hosts a popular weekly talk show on Al Arabiya channel, owns Al-Misbar research center in Dubai, and writes a daily column for Al Watan newspaper. Since joining the service last year he has been pretty active, using Twitter to express his thoughts and opinions. He recently asked his followers to suggest names for his show and what questions to ask them.
  3. @RayeD_X: Another surprise on the list. I don’t know much about this user except for what he provides in his bio: he is apparently an engineering student at Umm Al-Qura University, and he ranks #2 on the world in Killzone, which is a first-person shooter video game.
  4. @essamz: A relatively distant fourth, Essam Al-Zamil is an entrepreneur and blogger from the Eastern Province. He focuses on economics, especially issues related to real estate and unemployment in Saudi Arabia.
  5. @alfarhan: Fouad al-Farhan is the most well-known Saudi blogger. Even when he was not blogging, he was regularly tweeting, and has been for the past four years. Fouad tweets about politics, society, and entrepreneurship.
  6. @Nejer: Cartoonist Malik Nejer uses Twitter to share his latest work and comment on social and political issues. In his bio, he describes himself as someone who is interested in natural sciences and human rights. Recently, Malik announced his engagement to another user, @contradict1987, and they occasionally have cute exchanges on Twitter ;-)
  7. @ahmed: Yours truly.
  8. @alzaid: Saleh Alzaid is not merely a Twitter user. As the founder of TwitEmail and the owner of TwtBase, this programmer has made his mark on the Twitter community not just in Saudi Arabia but around the world.
  9. @ibrahemsu: Ibrahem AlSuhaibani blogs in Arabic about marketing, branding, and corporate identity. This kind of content is severely lacking and much needed in the Arab speaking internet. On Twitter, Ibrahim shows a more lighthearted side, but also shares links to creative works with brief commentary.
  10. @Bandar: Bandar Raffah is a graphic designer who makes beautiful things. You can take a glimpse of his recent work by looking at successful iOS apps such as 2Do, QamarDeen, and iPray. His Twitter stream is a mixture of distinctive ranting with occasional links.
  11. Bonus! @azizkhoja: With 123 tweets only, the Saudi minister of information and culture Abdulaziz Khoja is not the most prolific Twitter user. However, his presence as a senior government official on this social network is definitely interesting. The minister links to his recent articles and sometimes replies to fellow tweeps questions.

CPA and their PR puff, MFA and their tracking system

  • The Saudi Consumer Protection Association (CPA) would like to inform you that they have joined Consumer International (CI), a global federation of consumer groups. The head of CPA said this membership will help them do a better job. I would really like to believe it, but this sounds to me more like a PR puff than anything else. CPA has almost nothing for local consumers in the past. I know they don’t care about a tiny consumer like myself, but here is my little piece of advice to Dr. Mohammed Al-Hamad and his agency: stop talking to the press and do some real work. Kthxbai.
  • Saudiwoman: “I am currently on a family vacation in Italy but I had to post what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent my husband. Apparently they have a new service where they send the male guardian a text every time a “dependent” leaves the country. They don’t state which country the dependent left for but simply state that they did leave.”

Yahoo! comes to KSA, Changing map of Mideast

  • After buying Maktoob last year, Yahoo! is getting ready to enter the Saudi market by establishing a sales and editorial presence in the kingdom’s growing media market. Ahmed Nassef, MD Yahoo! ME, said “Saudi Arabia’s just complicated. It’s the most complicated country in the region as far as trade licenses go. It just takes time.” I wonder what SAGIA has to say about this.
  • Check out the ever-changing map of the Middle East. As Hanan notes, before Islam nobody cared about the Arabian Peninsula, and even in later Islamic empires the attention was limited to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina: