Are We Fine? Two Saudi Men Detained over YouTube Video

Two Saudi men were detained Sunday in relation to a YouTube video they produced about poverty in Riyadh, colleagues said. Feras Bughnah and Hosam al-Deraiwish were called by the police for questioning Sunday afternoon, and they are still in authorities custody in the police station in Sahafa district in northern Riyadh.

“We asked the guard at the police station if Feras and Hosam were inside the cell and he said yes,” said Asem al-Ghamdi, a reporter for the local news site Sabq who tried to visit the two men in prison yesterday. “The guard agreed to give them food that I brought for them, but he did not let us talk to them.”

Al-Ghamdi said he spoke with an officer at the police station who told him the issue is “simple” and that Feras and Hosam would be released Tuesday morning. However, as of Tuesday evening, the two men remain in detention.

Coincidentally, Monday, October 17, is when the world celebrates the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty.

While the detention appears related to the video, it is still unclear what was the exact reason for the detention, said one source who is following the case but asked not to be named for fear of retribution from authorities.

“One theory is that they have been detained because their YouTube video was shown on a TV channel owned by the opposition abroad,” he said. “Another theory is that authorities did not like the strong tone of the video and wanted to make an example out of these guys.”

Saudis online took to Twitter to comment on the issue and express their support to the two detained men. Using the hashtag #Mal3ob3lena (which is the name of the YouTube show), users posted more than 17,000 tweets in less than 24 hours since Monday.

“Those who say the truth are detained, while those who steal billions are free,” tweeted Sara Nasser.

Yasser Almisfer said he could never imagine that these two men would be detained because he knows them and he knows how much they care about the country.

“The idea of interrogating the creators of Mal3ob3lena is nauseating,” he tweeted.

UPDATE 10/20/2011 15:50 ET: It’s Thursday, close to 11pm Saudi time and no word on the release of #mal3ob3lena team yet. I spoke to another person familiar with the matter who told me he expects that Feras and his friends will be released in the coming few days.

“Police are waiting for the release order from the governate,” he said. Knowledgeable on the legal process in the country, this person described the detention as “strange,” adding that probably the reason for delaying their release is to send a message to bloggers and activists that there is a line that they should not cross.

“Come on!” he said, “where are we now? Why are these old ways making a comeback? Why are they trying to strangle the future of this country?”

UPDATE 11/1/2011 2:30 Istanbul: After two weeks in detention, Feras and his crew have been released.

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Okay, so here are three videos that have been making the rounds on the local interwebs lately:

This is a commercial for the Saudi teleco giant Mobily. As with most of their ads, it is of high production quality. But that’s not what make it interesting. What makes it interesting is the fact that it stars Prince Abdullah bin Meteb, the grandson of King Abdullah. This is the first time a prince appears in a commercial, and some people think such thing signifies a change in the way members of the Saudi royal family conduct themselves. I don’t know. I mean, can’t this be just a sports sponsorship deal? Prince Abdullah is a professional rider who could use a sponsor for such an expensive career, and Mobily is a for-profit company who wants to improve their image and make more money. I, for one, did not raise an eyebrow when I saw the tv ad.

In this video, a man who allegedly belongs to the Commission for Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, is seen ambushing a jalsa which is basically a small gathering where people entertain themselves with music and dancing. The bearded man snatches the oud from the singer’s lap with a swift move, and then smashed it to the ground in a scene more commonly associated with rock concerts. So much for calling to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.

The Cube is a popular British game show. For some reason, the Saudi state TV thought it was a good idea to bring it to their screen. The Saudi version is the same as the British one, except that our version has a nutty host who keeps on screaming. This video was put together by fellow blogger Raed al-Saeed, who previously produced Schism and Why Gaza children don’t deserve to be killed. I wonder if what he did is legal under the new e-media law proposed by MOCI :P

Thoughts on Jeddah

Three weeks have passed since the Jeddah catastrophe. People now are eagerly waiting for the verdict of the investigation commission. While we are waiting, it might be useful to look back and reflect.

The heavy downpour has exposed some nasty things such as the nonexistent infrastructure and the abundant corruption. But like what happens with many other things in life, sometimes we need to see the ugliness before we see the beauty. There are at least two good things I saw coming out of this disaster: the great spirit of the people, and the power of social media.

In the days and nights following Black Wednesday, we have seen more than 7,000 persons who volunteered to help in any and every way they can. I’m proud of Ibrahim al-Kushi who opened his house to shelter the displaced. I’m proud of Bassem Kurdi who decided to stay at the hospital when everybody else told him to go home. I’m proud of so many young men and women who, despite the harassment of some self-appointed guards of morality, rolled up their sleeves and spent countless hours at al-Harthi Exhibition Center to organize, distribute, and deliver the donations to those who need them in the most damaged areas of the city.

The relief efforts have been largely coordinated using the internet and social media tools. One Facebook group in particular was central to these efforts as it acted like an umbrella and a gathering point for volunteers. The group is called Rescue Jeddah, and it boasts more than 9,000 members. The content there is all in Arabic but you don’t need to read anything to see what they have been up to. Just look at the pictures and the videos and you will get a good idea on what they have done so far.

Beside Facebook, people were using blogs, Twitter, and SMS to circulate the latest news. They were also using Flickr and YouTube to document what was happening in real time. Some of the pictures, like the one of the dead little girl covered with mud, were really disturbing. But I think that in crises you need shocking images to make others understand the gravity of the disaster.

As for videos, estimates say more than 400 videos have been uploaded over the past three weeks. Most of these were taken by citizens using their mobile phones, but I have also seen some well-produced videos like this one by Mohammed al-Rehaili. In the end, I will leave you with this short film by Bader al-Homoud, who captures the tragedy but instead decides to focus on the bright human side of the story:

Read more:

  • One of my favourite blog posts about the disaster is this by McToom in which he offers an illustration on the basics of drainage systems. You know, because our officials are too busy to read long blog posts like mine.
  • Khaled al-Maeena, editor-in-chief of Arab News, wrote a letter to Makkah governor. “At the moment, the people of Jeddah and the surrounding areas are hurt, sad, anguished and in both physical and mental pain,” he said.

Saudi Unflagger and Blocking Twitter

Public demonstrations are banned in Saudi Arabia. We don’t have codified laws, so you will not find any official text that explicitly says it, but everybody knows it. What do we do when we want to protest publicly? We go to the internet and start a campaign online. Back in 2006 I wrote, ”Online campaigning is appealing to many people because most of the time it doesn’t take much resources.” Most of the time it takes little more than starting a freely hosted blog, design a few banners, maybe add a mailing list, and viola! you have a campaign.

This year alone, we have seen a plethora of campaigns that goes from the useful to the useless, and everything in between. We had the Khalooha… series, which covered topics like greed of car dealerships, women’s rights, and marriage expenses among other things. Most recently we had two confusing, similar but apparently opposing campaigns on the issue of male guardianship. But what I want to talk about today is a campaign called SaudiFlager (sic).

SaudiFlager’s goal is to clean up YouTube of videos offending to Saudi Arabia by flagging them. In addition to the unfortunate misspelled name, I believe this campaign has two main problems. First, what is an offending video? What are the criteria for such thing? I mean, what is offending to you can be quite harmless to me, right? So who gets to decide which videos are offending? Second, YouTube is already heavily censored by CITC. Do we need another layer of censorship?

twitter_cageI’m all for free speech, so don’t get me wrong. If you feel strongly offended by a video on the website, go ahead and flag it. Knock yourself out, I’m not going to stop you. Actually, I can’t stop you. But I think that organizing a campaign for such purpose is a just a waste of time and effort. What is worse, it is enforcing yet another form of censorship and that is the last thing we need. CITC is already doing a great job at it that I find myself occasionally amazed by how dedicated they are to this job.

This dedication is shown clearly in their latest blocking spree, which included Twitter profiles like those of @Mashi97 and @abualkhair. Blocking @Mashi97 was particularly strange because it came after he tweeted about having fried eggs for breakfast, which made him think that maybe someone at CITC does not like eggs. Also, what CITC don’t seem to realize is that blocking profile pages on Twitter does not prevent the users from updating. Go figure.

Which brings me back to online campaigns: should we start one to unblock these guys? I think we should, but currently I’m busy with another campaign of mine: Saudi Unflagger. Who is in?

Blood on Asphalt

Reuters runs this story on the Saudi fascination with the video-sharing website YouTube. Now this fascination is not limited to Saudis as YouTube has become an international phenomenon in short time, but as with almost everything else, outsiders seem to think that our country is a piece from outer space and not a part of this world, and anything we do is worthy of attention and newspapers headlines.

The story touches on the dangerous car stunts by Saudi youth that can be found on the site, and quotes a university student saying that teenagers immerse themselves in these acts because they have nothing better to do. This is an excuse I hear so often when people try to explain this stupidity: “they are bored,” I’m told.

I admit it: this country lacks proper entertainment outlets for the youth. There are no cinema theaters, extracurricular activities in schools and universities have little to offer, and sports clubs are poorly managed and can’t cope with the large numbers of youth in this fast growing nation. However, and no matter how many excuses some can come up with to explain why young men here are into cars ‘drifting’, I still think that there is no justification to put the lives of others in danger.

Bored? Go read a book, rent a movie, go swimming, or even go wank yourself for all I care, but please oh please don’t get behind the wheel to jeopardize our lives. Driving in these roads is dangerous enough, and we already have seen much blood spilt on the asphalt, we don’t need idiots killing themselves and others just because they were trying to have some fun.