- One thing that I failed to mention in my last blogpost about the new online media law is that MOCI has broken one of their promises. Back in March 2010, Abdulrahman al-Hazza said the ministry has no plans to pre-approve the editors of news website like they do with newspapers. The text of the law that came out on Saturday listed the approval of the editor-in-chief by the ministry as one of the conditions to register an “electronic newspaper.” MOCI keeps saying that they are extending a hands to us and we should trust them, but how are we supposed to trust them when they can’t even keep their word?
- Over 100 Saudi citizens signed an open letter to the Shoura Council, asking the Council to discuss the issue of women’s driving. I know, I know. It is indeed sad that we are still discussing this, but that’s Saudi Arabia for you. The signatories suggested a trial period for women’s driving, where women are only allowed to drive in a certain city during a certain time of the day, among other conditions and restrictions. I see what they are trying to do, which is to find a practical approach to implement this, but honestly I hate this gradual oh-let’s-consider-the-feelings-of-our-super-senseitive-society way to do things. A basic right is a basic right. Let’s get this over with and move on.
- American Bedu has a nice interview with Tariq al-Maeena, columnist for Arab News. I met Tariq in Jeddah during the Saudi BlogCamp. I find it strange that despite being married to an American, he does not encourage Saudis to marry foreigners and thinks the government should have some stringent demands before approving a Saudi’s request for a foreign partner.
- It rained in Jeddah again, and again it was pretty bad.
- During my time in Riyadh I had a chance to closely watch the expat community there. One fascinating aspect of that community, of course, was the relationships between men and women. The interaction between the expats and the social restrictions of the city creates an interesting dynamic, although I have to admit that listening to their gossip sometimes felt like watching some lame soap opera. But if this is your thing, then you should read orchidthief’s blogpost about cheating among the expat community.
- Broadcast rights of major sports events such as the World Cup used to be a hot topic for debate in the Arab World. Not anymore as most people here have grown accustomed to the realities of premium TV in the region. But something in this article from the New York Times caught my attention: “In many smaller European countries, public broadcasters still have a firm grip on the World Cup, under a collective agreement between FIFA, the governing body for the tournament, and the European Broadcasting Union, a group representing public broadcasters. A similar deal was signed between FIFA and the African Union of Broadcasters, providing viewers with free access to all the World Cup matches across much of sub-Saharan Africa.” Why this is not the case here? In the Middle East there is such a union. It’s called ASBU. Unfortunately for the people in this region, ASBU is too weak and has been subdued by private TV networks owned by individuals with close ties to Arab government. Go figure.
- Speaking for the World Cup, Saudi Arabia did not make it to this year’s tournament for the first time since 1994. This failure to qualify and other local sports issues have been recently discussed in the Shoura Council. The General Presidency of Youth Welfare (GPYW) has come under strong criticism from Shoura members who questioned the performance of GPWY and how they spend their budget. I highly doubt this will change anything in that aging body, but I’m glad to see them getting kicked, even if it was merely symbolic.
Women’s driving and the mahram (male guardianship) have been two of the most pressing and controversial issues in the country during the past few years. However, serious debate regarding these issues has been almost absent from the local media in the past few weeks.
I slightly noticed the absence, but I thought it could be that people simply got sick of endlessly discussing these issues without seeing any visible progress. But I was wrong. According to Dr. Abdul-Rahman Al-Enad, member of Shoura Council, the Ministry of (dis)Information have secretly ordered the newspapers to ban any article on these two issues. He didn’t explain why MOI have taken such measures, but the message is clear: they don’t want anyone to talk about this.
Dr. Al-Enad, who is also a founding member of NSHR, revealed this secret and other juicy bits during a lecture on human rights and freedom of expression that he gave to a group of journalism students and teachers at KSU last Saturday.
Truth be told, I was a bit hesitant to attend the lecture because my recent experiences with Shoura Council members were not particularly encouraging. I’m glad to report this wasn’t the case this time. Dr. Al-Enad was frank, blunt and refreshingly as cool as a Shoura member can be.
He started his talk with a brief introduction on the principles of human rights and the international laws, then quickly moved to focus on the importance of free speech as a fundamental and indispensable right for the citizens any developing nation.
Dr. Al-Enad said that although the Press and Publications Law states that “freedom of press is protected in line with laws and Sharia,” such statement has no basis in The Basic Law, which serves as a constitution, where Article 39 states: “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation and strengthen unity. It is prohibited to commit acts leading to disorder and division, affecting the security of the state and its public relations, or undermining human dignity and rights. Details shall be specified in the Law.”
The devil is in the details. The Basic Law refers you to the Press and Publications Law, which in turn doesn’t offers much details. All what the latter has to offer is the vague sentence “in line with laws and Sharia.” What laws and what interpretation of Sharia, no one exactly knows.
As I previously said here, The Basic Law should be amended to enumerate the rights and duties of citizens, and one of these rights is freedom of expression. Dr. Al-Enad agrees, but says the problem is that the Shoura Council has no right to amend The Basic Law. Actually, the Council doesn’t even have the right to modify its own rules. Only the King has the power to do that.
However, the Council has the authority to review and approve lower laws. One of these laws is the E-Crimes Act, which has been passed in March 2007. I am concerned because the act contained some articles that are very stretchy and non-specific, and they can be easily used to target freedom of expression online.
I went to ask Dr. Al-Enad about this law after he finished his lecture. He told me he does not remember the details of the law, and asked if he can contact me later to talk about this. I gave him my card, and I’m still waiting to hear from him. Can I trust the Shoura Council to act positively to protect human rights and free speech, at least on this particular case? For now, I’m reserving my judgment until the esteemed member and I get a chance to talk. Because, you know, it’s always good to talk.
First you have some people who believe that the government cannot be criticized simply because الشيوخ أبخص, and the government know the interests of the citizens better than themselves. Then you have some officials in the government who believe they cannot be criticized because, well, they are the government, falsely thinking this gives them some kind of immunity. And now you have a Shoura member who believe he and his fellow members cannot be criticized because he claims that almost no one out there know anything about the nature of work they do under that big dome.
However, Abdullah Al Twairgi is not jut asking for immunity, but he also seeks establishing a law to punish those who dare to talk bad about the Shoura Council. Obviously the right honourable member was so offended by an episode of Tash Ma Tash that was aired in Ramadhan and lightly touched on the performance of the council, and now he wants to ban reporters from attending the council discussions until they come up with something that can silence the critics. Way to go doctor!
At least I’m glad I have not elected you.