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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The New Activism

It is rather sad that at a time when peoples are toppling dictators and changing regimes, we are still stuck talking about women driving, underage marriage and the right of prisoners to get a speedy, fair trial. I’m not saying these issues are unimportant, but let’s face it: their importance pales quickly when compared to other countries’ struggles to change their reality.

So, what’s up in Saudi Arabia?

The latest Saudi story to make international headlines was about a proposed anti-terror law that the interior ministry has been aggressively pushing through the Shoura Council. Amnesty International somehow obtained a copy of the draft and published it on their website.

Amnesty said the proposed law would strangle peaceful protest, and asked the King to “reconsider this law and ensure that his people’s legitimate right to freedom of expression is not curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism.”

The draft, probably leaked by a member of the Shoura Council, contained comments made by the Council’s security committee. Based on the copy, they seem to have made very few and minimal changes on the text prepared by the ministry. These changes, however, do not touch on the articles that caused concern to Amnesty and activists in the country like Article 29, which says: “Anyone who doubts the king or crown prince’s integrity will face punishment of at least 10 years in jail.”

The Saudi embassy in London responded to Amnesty’s leak by saying the concerns of the human rights organization were “baseless and mere assumptions.”

Local media did not report much on the news, but newspaper columnists made a point of attacking Amnesty and activists who raised their concerns about the proposed law on social media sites. “Amnesty have committed a crime by interfering [in a domestic matter] and publishing confidential documents,” wrote Ahmed al-Towayan in Okaz daily. “They proved that they are an organization that includes a group of ignorants, rebels and people who have interests; an organization morally and financially bankrupt seeking money any way they can.”

But the most severe and sinister attacks were saved for local rights activists, who have gotten increasingly vocal in their criticism of some government practices lately. In the same week, the Saudi edition of Al-Hayat daily carried two columns calling activists “erotic dancers” and outlaws.

“There is no doubt that the new activism has become a dangerous phenomenon,” Saud al-Rayes wrote, “because it aims to challenge the state and its organizations.” Al-Rayes linked local activism to the Iranian influence in the region, a bold statement for which he did not bother to provide any evidence, then called activists to support the National Society of Human Rights instead of questioning government policies.

The article understandably angered activists who turned to Twitter (where else?) to release their fury. Al-Rayes, as we now say in Saudi Arabia, has been hashtagged.

His fellow columnist in the same paper Hani al-Dhaheri could not just stand their while his colleague gets ripped up by the kids in social media. Few days later, he penned this column in which he called rights activists khawarij who use social media to incite people against the government.

After getting a slap on the wrist for signing one of the reform petitions earlier this year, al-Dhaheri has learned his lesson and conformed.

“How could a whiner in Twitter, Facebook or YouTube assert that someone is innocent or oppressed unless they have an ulterior motive beyond this cause which they use to cover their agenda,” al-Dhaheri wrote today. He kept repeating a line about targeting the “legitimate leaders” of the country, despite the fact that none of the local activists actually question the legitimacy of the royal family.

After writing 457 words, al-Dhaheri concludes in the last paragraph that this “suspicious project run by activists ‘from their homes’ is not new,” and that those activists will either end up distracted by fame and money or leave the country to join the opposition in London. Again, al-Dhaheri does not bother to tell us how he reached that definitive conclusion. Maybe he has a magic ball?

Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, co-founder and president of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, noted what he called an “attack campaign” on human rights activists.

“My message to all #saudi columnists who ridicule and humiliate people that one day you will be held accountable in people’s court,” he tweeted.

One day.